There Wasn’t a Spanking Scene in… The Talking Cure (but there is now, sort of)

A disturbed 18-year-old Russian named Sabina Spielrein is admitted to the private sanatorium where Carl Jung is the assistant director. He decides to use her to trial his new method of psychoanalysis. So begins Christopher Hampton’s play The Talking Cure, first produced at London’s National Theatre in 2003. It’s a play that, despite what it says above, does in a sense feature an onstage spanking scene – just not one that can be watched by an audience or photographed by a camera!

In 2003, Sabina was played by Jodhi May…

… seen here in the production with Ralph Fiennes as Jung:

02 May and Fiennes

The early scenes establish, among other things, that Sabina’s anxiety and manic behavior happens in response to mysterious triggers, such as when she sees him slapping the dust out of a blanket; she also has an uncommonly strong reaction to the word ‘bottom’, and in moments of stress she sees a vision of her father’s hand.

Eventually Jung winkles the truth out of her: she has developed a sexual response to being spanked by her father, and feels desperately ashamed of it. Finally she describes her ultimate erotic fantasy: she and her father are onstage in a theater in front of a huge crowd, and he rips her clothes off, puts her over his knee and spanks her … and the crowd loves it!

And with that a corner is turned: she is soon able to leave the hospital and enrol at university. Her relationship with Jung develops into something more like an adult friendship, and she obviously wants it to become even more than that. One of his other patients, a compellingly persuasive genius, advises him, ‘Just take her to some secluded spot and thrash her to within an inch of her life: that’s clearly what she wants. How can you deny her such a simple pleasure?’

Jung and Sabina do end up in an adulterous relationship, but initially the sex is only conventional. But then she asks him to punish her…

In the play as originally written, Jung doesn’t. Doctor/patient sex is rarely if ever a good idea, and gossip forces Jung to put the relationship back on a professional footing.

But plays are living things: they grow and develop. This one initially developed into a screenplay for David Cronenberg’s 2011 movie, A Dangerous Method, with Michael Fassbender as Jung and Keira Knightley as Sabina. This version omits the play’s spanking ‘scene’ – the detailed account of Sabina’s onstage fantasy punishment – but, on the swings and roundabouts principle, it adds a scene in which Jung spanks Sabina during their initial affair…

03 Dangerous Method

… followed by another, when the affair is later resumed, in which he whacks her with a belt while she studies herself in the mirror, now both subject and analyst:

03a Dangerous Method03b Dangerous Method

The big disappointment is that the film does away with the play’s indication that Sabina’s fetish is specifically for being spanked OTK. But then they wanted to avoid making the two punishment scenes too overtly sexy, in part because they were the reason Keira Knightley hesitated to accept the role:

When I first read the script, I thought, ‘The script’s fascinating, and it’s David, and I really want to work with David, but I read those two scenes and just went, ‘I don’t think that I can do that,’ particularly because it’s the age of the internet; it’s gonna be everywhere; I don’t want that out there.

I phoned him up to really turn it down. I said to him, ‘Look, I love you, I love the script, I love the character, but I really don’t know that I can play those scenes’… He said, ‘Look, if I’m gonna do them, then they’re gonna be clinical; they’re not gonna be sexy, they’re not gonna be voyeuristic in that way’. And I thought, ‘Okay, well I can understand that. As long as it’s clinical and it’s not some, sort of, weird sexy spanking thing.’

And she was brave enough to allow herself to be whacked for real, with a shot of vodka beforehand to give her some Dutch – or should that be Russian? – courage.

Now we fast-forward again to November 27, 2014, when the play opened at the Josefstadt Theater, Vienna, directed by Christopher Hampton himself. It was a German translation by Daniel Kehlmann, now entitled Eine Dunkle Begierde, which is a literal rendering of the movie title; but it wasn’t a straight-to-German version of the 2003 script so much as a new treatment, incorporating some of the material introduced in the movie – including one of the thrashing scenes.

In this production, Jung was played by Michael Dangl and Sabina by Martine Ebm:

04 Martina Ebm

We get a taste of the thrashing scene in the trailer for the production:

The powerful buildup is also preserved in detail in a series of production photographs. First she hands him the belt.

Michael Dangl Martina Ebm

She goes to the other side of the bed and kneels down.

05 Dunkle-Begierde-MichaelDangl_MartinaEbmPeitsche-1

He walks round to a position behind her.


She pulls up her dress.


And then she bends forward to await what is to follow.

08 Martina Ebm Josefstadt 2014

But what does follow? A beating or a blackout? The reviews make it clear that the belt was actually seen to strike Sabina’s bare bottom – but I doubt there can have been a really full-scale whacking onstage. Rule One of stage violence is to avoid injuring the actors: they are needed again for the next performance! And in Martina’s case, that meant presenting her naked and unmarked bottom for another belting.

If only he’d fulfilled Sabina’s true fantasy, and given her a good spanking across his knee – which would be a lot easier to control, and a lot more exciting to watch!

2 thoughts on “There Wasn’t a Spanking Scene in… The Talking Cure (but there is now, sort of)

  1. Kyrel says:

    Actually Keira Knightley didn’t take any of the “strikes” for real (sadly enough…). In the scene(s) where she’s caned/spanked, Michael Fassbender is not striking her, but rather a box of some sort.
    “And it probably helped that her butt never bristled, even after multiple takes. “I didn’t actually get spanked,” she revealed. “He didn’t actually touch me. He hit a box.” And, yes, the box was union.”


    • Harry says:

      Thanks for the clarification, though I suspect there must be different, incompatible stories in circulation about what actually happened. Of course, since acting is the art of illusion, it doesn’t matter in the least if Keira Knightley didn’t get hit for real… because her character, Sabina, still did.


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