For his final production as The Almeida’s associate director, Robert Icke brings us a “very free” adaptation of doctor-writer Arthur Schnitzel’s play Professor Bernhardi. First performed in 1912, the play presents a portrait of Viennese antisemitism, through a Jewish doctor who comes under fire for refusing a Catholic priest permission to administer last rites to a patient. Icke keeps hold of this premise while remoulding it into something altogether more pertinent, more urgent — and more difficult for a modern-day audience.
Our 2019 protagonist is Ruth Wolff (Juliet Stevenson), a secular Jew who runs a prestigious medical institution specialising in research into a cure for Alzehimer’s. When Ruth physically prevents a priest from seeing a 14-year-old girl dying from the septic results of a self-administered abortion, stating it’s in the patient’s best interests, there grows a public outcry. Petitions are started, it goes viral on social media, and eventually Ruth is placed under the microscope during a difficult televised debate.
Through Icke’s adaptation, this story no longer only concerns the question of religion versus science, but also tackles race, gender and class. It is an impressively multi-layered exploration of identity politics in all their complicated, unanswerable stickiness. At the root of the play lie two gargantuan issues. One: is the word of doctors and medicine the superior one? And the other: should we really –— as one doctor phrases it — be ‘dumping people into piles’, when each human’s identity is complicated and multi-faceted? These questions are highlighted by the informed and meaningful use of colour-blind and gender-blind casting throughout the first act. This is a jarring experience, in exactly the way that it should be. It’s not about race until it is.
During a scene in which the young girl’s father (played by Paul Higgins, who also plays father in the religious sense) storms into the doctor’s space propelled by grief and shouting of heaven and hell, the contrast between groups is painfully drawn attention to. It’s a poignant image: a broken man amidst white-coated bodies, lit up under cold, harsh strip lighting. The doctors are made to be angels amongst men.
There is not a weak link in this 11-strong cast, who carry the weight of this play with great skill. Ria Zmitrowicz shines as the unlikely and vulnerable teenage friend of Ruth. Kirsty Rider leaves you wanting more as a confident junior doctor embroiled in difficult events. Naomi Wirthner is particularly believable in her male role, who is “an abhorrent man, but the best”. Stevenson, though, is spectacular. She portrays this difficult character, who is all at once a victim and very much culpable, with magnificent poise. Despite her world falling apart around her, Stevenson bestows Ruth with a quiet, but unchangeable, sense of empowerment. To witness her face enlarged onto the backdrop of the stage during the TV debate is a privilege; the character’s usually sturdy face slowly giving way to grief, loss and fear.
Slick, simple, clinical design by Hildegard Bechtler houses this production in just the right way. Sound by Tom Gibbons continually underpins the action with subtlety and tension, augmented by live drums from Hannah Ledwidge, who hovers god-like over the stage.
Icke’s production is so admirable because it brings the original play’s underlying contemporary resonances passionately to the surface. It does what many plays with big political questions struggle to: refuses to tell you who it thinks is right. Instead, The Doctor presents its argument through a balanced interrogation into very real questions of privilege. My debating mind was tugged in countless and unexpected directions that I’ll grapple with for a while.
The Doctor is playing the Almeida Theatre until 28 September. For more info and tickets, see the Almeida website.