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Mrs Klein, Almeida Theatre | reviews, news & interviews

Mrs Klein, Almeida Theatre

Mrs Klein, Almeida Theatre

Get off the couch and see Clare Higgins's Melanie Klein

Don't be put off by the deliberately dim interior that first greets you at Mrs Klein, the Nicholas Wright play that has been scorchingly revived at the Almeida Theatre by the director Thea  Sharrock and a cast including Clare Higgins in her third stand-out performance on the London stage this year. Those who feel as if they've had enough theatrical psychiatry-speak from the Almeida courtesy of that venue's recent revival of Duet For One, think again: a play that can emerge (and has) as too portentous by half reappears with a wry spring in its step and an emotional sting that is sure to land, whether or not you have spent time on the proverbial couch.

Wright's play was a significant hit its first time round in London, opening in 1988 at the National before transferring to Shaftesbury Avenue; a separate Off-Broadway production in 1995 garnered kudos for the performance in the title role of the late and legendary Uta Hagen in a star turn that I recall being rather, shall we say, overripe.

None of that here: showing discipline bordering on a severity of which one senses the pioneering child psychologist Melanie Klein would have approved, Higgins charts an unsparing portrait of the healer as patient, as caught at that point of emotional upheaval in London in 1934, that forced Mrs Klein to come to terms with the unexplained death of her 27-year-old son, Hans. His passing - was it an accident? a suicide? - leaves Mrs Klein to mark a long night's journey into the London day, accompanied by a younger German acolyte of sorts, Paula (Nicola Walker), and by the senior analyst's own daughter, Melitta (Zoe Waites). That Klein fille remains uneasy about a first name that, we're informed in no uncertain terms, means "little Melanie" is just one of many indications that storm clouds will soon be gathering well before the morning light filters across Tim Hatley's inevitably book-bound set.

Sharrock's masterstroke with Wright's play is to acknowledge head-on what can seem old-fashioned, even fusty about it, not least the round robin of face-offs that scrupulously pair off each of the women at different times, building to one of those impulsive acts of violence that tend to make for juicy theatre while in my experience happening almost never in real life. But to a degree I have never seen mined with this text is the way in which its total immersion in the language of the therapist gives the trio of women a shared lingo that acts as a cloak that all but suffocates true, unfettered emotion.

At the start, Mrs Klein even speaks dismissively of the possibility of emotional release ("some other time"), preferring to demonstrate to Paula the workings of a nine-year-old patient's "daddy train" and to crack jokes about Southend and Bethnal Green to the admiring Berliner, who has been in England six months. A snarky wit is easily arrived at: "It isn't funny being her daughter," Melitta says of her mother to Paula. "You try it." And so is a ready recourse to over-interpretation in which, say, a smudge on an envelope is taken by Mrs Klein to be a "persecutory delusion", even if sometimes a cigar really only is a cigar.

Here, though, one is always aware of the layering of defenses and the genuine hurt that results when one or another carapace is cracked open to reveal the aching human being behind the theory. It's amusing up to a point to discover that Mrs Klein's filing cabinets are labelled for the ego, superego, and id, but it's also deeply chilling when Mrs Klein eventually surrenders to tears only to subject them a moment later to the prevailing lingo as so much "excreta". And without forcing the moment, Sharrock makes something immensely revealing out of the final scene in which we find Paula lying on the couch, the budding analyst willingly turned patient, functioning as therapist to the ramrod-straight Mrs Klein: a woman all but frozen by the analytical gifts that, one could argue, inhibited her own abilities to mend.

The cast cunningly play down the hoary nature of some of the confrontations in favour of sly glances or sardonic asides. The cyclonic set-to between the two Klein women is made doubly riveting by the way in which Walker's ever-alert Paula silently follows a volley that is by no means only verbal. Waites, in turn, shows a daughter caught between admiration for a mother with whom she shares a profession and disgust at a way of being that Melitta on some level worries she may share.

Higgins, in turn, commands respect, as any Mrs Klein must, while laying bare the narcissism of someone who can't help but relate every available fact to herself even as she perpetuates the very cycles of recrimination and regret, attack and counterattack, that, in professional terms, she exists to defuse. "I did good work," she remarks defensively, somewhere between the talk of "counter-transference" and "symbolic urine". Well, it takes one to know one: Higgins's work in this play ranks with her very best.

Performances until 5 December. Book tickets here or call 020 7359 4404.

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