Freud slips on stage blood



Emma's Nose
By Paul J. Livingston
Directed by Neil Armfield
Belvoir St Theatre, Sydney
Playing until June 24


One response to the doldrums into which Sydney theatre had lapsed was to say: okay, if the more or less well-known playwrights can't seem to come up with exciting plays any more, let's see who can. Therefore, instead of commissioning Louis Nowra, Katherine Thomson, Michael Gow or some other dedicated, talented playwright, Company B Belvoir, with money from the Australia Council, decided to give Flacco a go.

Paul J. Livingston is best known for his comic creation, Flacco. He is also a successful illustrator, animator and actor. Emma's Nose is his first stage play.

Company B obviously wanted something post-modern but based on a big name to get the punters in. Sigmund Freud was the big name. Livingston gives it away in the program notes. "Freud is what you want him to be", he says, and "Emma's Nose is a collage of truth; sampling, rearranging, relocating, remixing history". How post-modern is that!

The pity is that the true story on which the piece is based is infinitely more interesting, incredible and, yes, theatrical, than Emma's Nose. Emma Eckstein was brought to Freud for treatment of various symptoms including menstrual cramps, hysteria and masturbation. Freud, at a loss, called on his friend Wilhelm Fliess, an ear, nose and throat specialist, who carried out a botched operation on Emma's nose on the theory that the nose is the seat of neuroses and sexual aberrations.

In Livingston's piece — I hesitate to call it a play because it has no dramatic structure — we see Emma, totally wrapped in bandages and speechless, perched on a chair, while Freud (Tyler Coppin) and Fliess (Jacek Koman) carry on a stage routine that certainly appealed to a very loud man next to me who guffawed during the whole show.

The two-man gags include snorting cocaine, crawling over each other on the psychiatrist's couch, putting sharp implements into various orifices, sniffing each other's bums like dogs and simulating anal intercourse. Fliess also operates on Emma's nose behind a Hitchcockian shower curtain, with much blood and screaming.

The dialogue, witty at moments, is generally aimed at the pre-pubescent boy level. Lots of pus, blood and mucus jokes.

The show ends with the hapless Meaghan Davies, playing Emma, crawling and slipping in her own blood up the steeply raked stage. I felt sorry for the actor, who never gets a word to say. Again, it's a pity, because I'm sure the real Emma would have been fascinating to hear from.

Did Livingston have a bad experience with a psychiatrist? If so, he could have told us an interesting story. Instead, he left this audience member feeling bored and sickened by the waste of scarce theatre resources, including the talents of the two excellent musicians who do their best to lift our spirits. Or maybe I need treatment to become adapted to post-modern theatre?