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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Mrs. Klein
Almeida Theatre      Autumn 2009

Nicholas Wright's 1988 play offers an intense personal drama, fascinating insights into the way people's mindsets control their interaction, three opportunities for brilliantly subtle and emotionally naked acting - and, as a bonus, a bit of a lesson in post-Freudian psychoanalytic theory.

Melanie Klein (1882-1960) was a psychoanalyst whose most important theoretical work was in the importance of an infant's first relationships with its mother, so there is a dark irony in the fact that one of her sons died young and her analyst daughter frequently disagreed with her theories.

Recognising that a Freudian would have to see both of these as rejections, Wright has them happen together, adding to the mix another young woman eager to become Klein's patient and thus - you armchair psychiatrists are way ahead of me - take the daughter's place.

So on one level this play, depicting the final break between mother and daughter, is expressed in elemental passions, played by characters trained and inclined to experience their emotions on the most elemental levels.

What might be rather ordinary mother-daughter tensions or pseudo-sibling rivalries become greater than that when all three women are practising analysts and experienced analysands, and thus can't avoid awareness of their deepest feelings.

And on another level, there's almost a farce here, of characters acting out pop psychology clichés and being made all the more embarrassed by the fact that they are fully aware of it, constantly taking their own and each other's mental and emotional temperatures, even while in the midst of deeply passionate interchanges.

(We even get sucked into the game, as when we watch Klein struggle to interpret a dream while in denial about what is to us the clear and obvious meaning, or when the outsider blurts out an insight into her feelings only to have the other two - and us - dismiss it as obvious.)

Perhaps you know someone who experiences absolutely everything through one particular prism, so that every conversation or event or news item is read in religious or feminist or economic or what's-in-it-for-me terms, and you find yourself choosing your words carefully to try to avoid opportunities for wilful misinterpretation. Now imagine three such people in a room together.

For all that it has to say about the depth and inescapability of primordial infantile passions (and some of Klein's theories are presented, clearly and convincingly), some of the most fascinating psychological insights of the play lie in its demonstration of how people can be blinkered by any way of viewing reality that controls how they interpret all experience and input.

(If only these women could stop thinking like shrinks for a moment, their lives would become so much simpler.)

There is certainly much to admire in Thea Sharrock's hothouse direction and in the three performances.

As Klein, Clare Higgins begins with the pedant's rock of absolute self-confidence, allowing only the occasional hesitation or brief loss of focus to suggest that knowing she's always right intellectually doesn't mean she's always sure about her decisions and actions.

And even as she casually lords it over the two younger women, she lets us sense the character's dependence on their adoration and affirmation. It is all done very subtly, so that the slightest cracks in her veneer give just glimpses of frightening emotions beneath.

Zoë Waites has a more flashy role as the daughter, almost overeager to express her feelings, in part because she knows her mother will have difficulty dealing with such raw anger and pain outside the controlled environment of the consulting room.

A lifetime of analysis has put this character very much in touch with her feelings, and Waites has the courage to tap into them and spread them all out for us to see.

Meanwhile Nicola Walter succeeds in making the outsider both guarded and transparent, trying to ingratiate herself into this menage without giving away the desperate neediness that the others spot immediately and the actress gradually allows us to comprehend.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of Mrs Klein - Almeida Theatre 2009

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