Sabina! at the Bush Theatre

For my money, the best theatre engages and satisfies on three levels - intellectual, emotional and visual.

Sabina succeeds brilliantly on a visual level. Fiona-Marie Chivers deservedly won the 1997 Linbury Prize for Stage Design. In her hands, the Bush becomes an ever-changing case of curiosities filled with toy trains, ghostly white cuckoo clocks and wardrobes that open to reveal new vistas. The visual clues are the strongest guide the audience has to the mood of each scene. This is most notable in the play's closing moments when Chivers achieves an operatic beauty and air of mystery far above and beyond the script.

Sabina offers little emotional involvement but that's fair enough; it's more of a cerebral piece. There should, then, be plenty to get our intellectual juices going in this foray into psychoanalysis. Alas, Snoo Wilson's failure to master his material means that this form of satisfaction also remains elusive.

It's not hard to see why the story of Sabina Spielrein (Susan Vidler) excited Wilson. Sigmund Freud (David Gant) referred the 18-year-old 'Rostov hysteric' to Carl Jung (Paul McGann) who, to Freud's surprise, cured her. Jung also had an affair with Sabina, and Freud and Jung's rift widened into an analytical divide. Sabina herself became a psychoanalyst while her mentors declined into madness and insignificance.

There are ghosts of ideas within Sabina that suggest a much more penetrating piece. The neat juxtaposition whereby patient and psychoanalyst find their positions reversed; the symmetry between Freud and Jung's personal life; the rich soil of Freud and Jung's increasingly divergent approaches to analysis. That none of this comes together coherently reflects not only the complexity of the material but Wilson's wrong-thinking in shaping it.

Where the audience requires some bedrock of clarity, Wilson gives us wilful gimmickry. Perhaps his biggest mistake is the ineffectual embodiment of Philemon (Mark Long), the Jung s hallucinated spirit guide. Philemon might have proved a useful guide for the audience, but the device is inconsistent and ultimately confusing. The root material here is complicated enough without further muddying the intellectual waters.

In spite of these overall failings, there are interesting moments in the production. I particularly enjoyed the scenes of intimacy between Sabina and Jung at the start of the second act but don't ask me to tell you where they were leading; I haven't a clue. One can only marvel at how performers find anchors of understanding in such an obfuscated piece.

It is a pleasure to watch an actor of McGann's ability within the goldfish-bowl confines of the Bush. And if you do sit it out to the end, he may even give you a tasty morsel of bread! Nevertheless, you'll leave Sabina with a gnawing sense of hunger for what might have been.

Justin Somper, February 1998