Oedipus complex was a tricky knot for Houdini to untie
SUSPECT Culture can be relied on to look at things from a fresh perspective, but for the cast of this company's latest show, The Escapologist, this is more than just a metaphor. The actors will arrive on stage suspended upside down from the ceiling.
However the company - co-founded by director Graham Eatough and playwright David Greig - is not guilty of flashy staging for its own sake. The cast are expected - while re-enacting some of Harry Houdini's most dangerous tricks - to get to grips with a complex script exploring psychoanalysis.
The life of Houdini and the thinking of Freud were first brought together by writer and psychoanalyist Adam Phillips in his book Houdini's Box. Using the book as a starting point, The Escapologist was developed at the National Theatre in London, and was scripted by Baftanominated playwright and screenwriter Simon Bent. Magicians were drafted in to teach the actors the stunts, and a series of multifunctional machines were developed as props.
Though Houdini and Freud may appear disparate figures, Eatough says there are many links between them: "When you look at them closely, the connections are so strong and that they are very happy bedfellows. Houdini lived a life of symbols, the language of his stunts is completely Freudian, often they are about being reborn. His life is incredible - Freud couldn't have made him up."
Eatough says the idea of making a show about therapy as a social phenomenon had been "bubbling away" in his head for about four years. "I'm interested in why people turn to therapy, what it is in society that makes therapy more ubiquitous than it's ever been, from self-help books through to traditional Freudian psychoanalysis."
The dynamic of therapist and patient, he says, is naturally dramatic, but when Houdini was added to the mix it became theatrically compelling.
Freud and Houdini were near contemporaries: Freud was a student at Vienna University when Houdini was born in Budapest. His family emigrated soon afterwards to the US and all his adult life Houdini would deny his European Jewish roots, changing his name (from Erich Weiss) in honour of a famous magician of the day, Eugene Robert-Houdin. After a short and inglorious career as a stage magician, he turned to escapology, which made him world famous, as he escaped from handcuffs and straitjackets, jails and padlocked crates, dangled from buildings, in tanks of water, or jumped from the landmark bridges.
"Houdini's life as a psychological case study is fascinating," says Eatough. "He used to invite his mum to watch his most dangerous stunts. When he jumped off Sydney Harbour Bridge, he was particularly proud of the fact that his mum was watching him. It seems strange since the stunts involved the chance of dying, that's what the audience paid to see."
Houdini was devastated by his mother's death, and spent the rest of his career passionately debunking spiritualists who practised what he considered "false magic".
For the cast of four - Kevin McMonagle, Tommy Mullins and Suspect Culture stalwarts Paul Blair and Selina Boyack - The Escapologist has meant learning to "fly" and to view Tramway upside-down from roof height without dizziness or vertigo. McMonagle says he's relieved he spends most of the play with his feet on the ground. "I did have a go at it and it's very scary. It disorientates you, makes you feel quite ill. You have to acclimatise to it, by being upside down for short periods."
McMonagle's preparation for playing the role of the psychotherapist has included seeing a therapist himself, and he is a cautious advocate of therapy: "There are a lot of people looking for some advice. Try to get marriage counselling in any big city in Scotland and you have to wait a long, long time. I think it probably saves people's lives."
But our relationship with psychoanalysis is contradictory. In Hollywood, a therapist is a de rigueur accessory of the rich and, in the UK, people are turning to counsellors for solutions. Perhaps, surmises Eatough, in a world where there is less religion, they are the new priests.
At the same time, many question Freud's psychoanalytical principles. "Some of the stories psychoanalysis tells are quite dated," Eatough says. "When people talk about the Oedipus complex, how everything relates to the mother and father, the formative sexual experiences, people are understandably sceptical. Phillips has a healthily sceptical approach to what psychoanalysis can offer, and the clichs involved. To submit yourself to psychoanalysis you have to have faith in it, you have to believe that it isn't a lot of mumbo-jumbo invented by a patriarchal Viennese figure to repress the daughters of wealthy businessmen. What happens if you have a crisis of faith in yourself as a therapist?" To find out the answer, you'll need to see the play.
The Escapologist is at Tramway, Glasgow, 17-28 January, with previews on the 13-14 January
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