Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Julian Bird: Freud’s Last Session

By | Published on Friday 14 January 2022

Coming up at King’s Head Theatre this week is a production that really caught my eye. It’s a European premiere of US playwright Mark St Germain’s successful 2009 stage play ‘Freud’s Last Session’, staged by Nearly There Productions and directed by Peter Darney.

The play sees an imagined conversation taking place between renowned psychiatrist Sigmund Freud and writer and atheist-turned-Christian CS Lewis, dealing with age old questions of faith, love, sex and existence itself.

That’s interesting enough by itself, but there’s also this: Julian Bird, the actor who is playing Freud, had a long career as a psychiatrist before re-training and beginning an acting career in his sixties. I spoke to him to find out more.

CM: Can you start by telling us a bit about the play’s narrative? What story does it tell and what characters are involved?
JB: ‘Freud’s Last Session’ tells the story of a meeting between Sigmund Freud and CS Lewis at the time that Freud was nearing the end of his life and war was breaking out again.

Freud is desperate to understand the religious conversion that Lewis had gone through, leading to the two great minds debating life’s great mysteries and clashing as their world views collide.

CM: What themes are explored through the play?
JB: The play looks at religious thinking versus scientific thinking. Revelation versus reason. Intellect versus emotion. The men’s contrasting viewpoints and love of debate leads to them trying to put the whole world to rights and work out life’s great mysteries – all in one morning.

CM: Can you tell us about the role you play – and what attracted you to play this particular part?
JB: I play the role of Sigmund Freud. I was attracted to the role because my knowledge of Freud was part of my motivation to become a psychiatrist.

As a doctor, I find the Freud of the play is a complex character, still trying to understand the world and his place within it.

As an actor, the highs and lows of the journey he goes through in 80 minutes were a challenge too great to resist.

CM: So has the knowledge you have from your previous career been helpful to the tackling of this role?
JB: I am passionately interested in people’s motives and the way that they relate to each other. This is just as important in acting as it is in psychiatry.

It’s fascinating to see the way that the play develops and the relationship between the two men changes as their buttons are pressed: both by each other, and by the external forces at work as Britain reluctantly returns to war.

Also, through that previous career, I had a good general knowledge of Freud’s work – which saved some research time!

CM: Is the work of Freud still as relevant now, as it was when the play was set? What should interest contemporary audiences about this work?
JB: Some! It’s certainly true that any therapist will look at what unconscious factors are affecting their patients’ behaviour.

And his theories on projection and the notion of ‘defences’ are both still useful in any form of therapy. The oedipus concept – not so much!

We do have Freud to thank for possibly creating, but certainly making popular, the notion that talking about your problems can actually make you better. I don’t think this has ever been more relevant than now.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the rest of the creative team working on this production?
JB: Sean Browne, my fellow actor, has been a joy to work with. He is so intensely present in every moment and has done an enormous amount of research on his character.

Our director, Peter Darney, has been full of ideas and supports everyone’s creative contributions. Brad Caleb Lee’s set is very exciting – I’m sure it’s going to be beautiful – especially when lit by Clare O’Donoghue.

Sam Glossop’s sound design really adds something, and our stage manager Paris Wu has been a godsend!

CM: Can we talk about you, now? What prompted you to train as an actor after a long career in another field?
JB: I developed a nasty cancer at the age of 60, and the treatments forced me to reflect on what I should do with the rest of my life – which at the time seemed like it could be very short.

Also, I had happy memories of my childhood in a theatre family: my mother, Freda Jackson, had been a well known actress in her day, and my father a renowned scenic artist. I had always had an urge to give it a try and thought – if not now, then when?

CM: What have been the highlights of your career since you became an actor? What has proved challenging?
JB: One of the most enjoyable roles I had was that of the atheist priest in ’The Last Priest’, which received five stars in The Scotsman and transferred to The King’s Head.

Playing King Lear was also an incredible experience, especially as I have three daughters of my own! Working on ‘The Tudors’ was fascinating – seeing how a lavish production like that is run.

Perhaps the current role I am playing is the most challenging: coming out of two years of isolation due to the pandemic and jumping into a full-on two-hander has certainly kept me on my toes!

CM What aims do you have for the future? Do you have unfulfilled ambitions?
JB: I am in a fortunate position where I have achieved most of my ambitions.

I have co-written a play with Peter about the life of a psychiatrist, looking at both sides of the therapeutic relationship, where the psychiatrist is both therapist and patient.

I would love to see that find success and will be turning my attention to it when this current show is over.

CM: What’s coming up next for you after this?
JB: As I mentioned, I will be looking at taking my play ‘Psychiatrists’ forward. But as a jobbing actor, I am of course open to offers!

‘Freud’s Last Session’ is on at the King’s Head Theatre from 18 Jan-12 Feb. For more information and to book, see this page here.

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