Acting Jung; Ralph Fiennes Is the Latest Actor to Play a Shrink. but There Is a Fundamental Problem Putting Psychoanalysis on Stage and Screen

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Byline: SARAH DUNANT

Sarah Dunant The Arts The best books to give this Christmas Pages 44-45 World premiere of opera stunner Sophie's Choice Review Page 47 WHEN director Billy Wilder was a cub reporter in Vienna in the 1920s, so the story goes, he tried to get an interview with the then mover and shaker of Viennese culture, Dr Sigmund Freud. He got as far as the waiting room, where Freud took one look at his card and showed him the door.

History, exile and war intervened, and Wilder got his own back 50 years later by satirising the good doctor with a character called The Big Brain From Vienna in his sublimely funny newspaper farce, The Front Page.

The Big Brain gets bigger billing in Christopher Hampton's new play The Talking Cure, which has just opened at the National Theatre and dramatises the moment in psychoanalytic history when Jung (played by Ralph Fiennes) and Freud split after Jung's analysis of a key case.

The audience no doubt will be full of shrinks. Professionals love plays about themselves (Caryl Churchill's 1980s play Serious Money, about the City boom, had traders buying tickets from touts and the Royal Court bar was noisy with the popping of their champagne corks). But amid the shrinks at the National, there will also be a fair number of patients - past, present and, possibly, future.

Even if you're not a believer in the religion of psychoanalysis, Freud's impact on the modern consciousness has been immense. The 20th century was in many ways Freud's century. His Interpretation of Dreams was published in 1900, at a time when the newly born cinema was making our imagination celluloid, while Freud's analyst, as a figure seeking deeper truth in the unconscious, mirrors the rise and rise of the detective in fiction.

No question about it, in terms of drama, The Big Brain was on to something: inside every great story there is always a darker, more coded one lurking under the surface. Put the words secrets, memory and family together and you have a plot. But to uncover it you must read the clues and hear the language under the words. Sherlock and Sigmund had a good deal more in common than a fondness for cocaine.

Bizarrely, we partly have Hitler to thank for Freud's popularity. The forced mass exodus of so many of Europe's writers, artists and thinkers, and their rooting in foreign soil also marks the arrival of analysis in America, and on its stage and screen (a story that Christopher Hampton has already tackled obliquely in his rich and funny play Tales from Hollywood).

By the early Fifties, psychiatry and psychoanalysis were gushing into the mainstream.

Ironically, Freud's most popular movie interpreter at the time would have taxed the couch springs in more ways than one: they don't come any more bloated with repression than Alfred Hitchcock. Yet many of Hitchcock's best movies are coherent, albeit simplistic, studies of neurosis and the impact of analysis. From the castrating overbearing mother/son relationship revealed in Psycho (1960), through Gregory Peck's encounter with the Viennese therapist in Spellbound (1945) - "Tink of me as yuer fadder.

Tell me efferyting that cumes into yuer head" - to the sexual tension of Sean Connery free associating with ice-blonde Tippy Hedren in Marnie (1964). …