Almeida Theatre, London – until 28 September 2019
One thing you can be sure of at Rupert Goold’s Almeida. You will be provoked. You may also be challenged and, at the end of the day, you will have to admire the sheer bravura of the production. Whether you will always ‘like’ or ‘enjoy’ the production is rather a different question. But then theatre is never always a simple matter of ‘enjoyment’. For some of us it can also be about intellectual and imaginative expansion and about the testing of one’s own humanity.
If a production does that, I reckon it’s done its job. And Robert Icke, for not the first time – nor, most certainly for the last although this is Icke’s final production as the Almeida’s associate director – does precisely that.
Based on Arthur Schnitzler’s 1912 Professor Bernhardi as a response to his own Viennese society, it was written at a time described in the programme as when ‘parliamentary liberalism was a spent force, overwhelmed by the rise of radical mass parties on the right and left and by the resulting climate of intolerance and intransigence; political opportunism was rife; political language was often divisive and intemperate and anti-Semitism permeated public life’.
It could almost, if not quite, be a description of our own toxic times when anti-semitism is again casting long shadows. As for language, that too has taken a downward turn.
So Icke’s ‘very free’ adaptation, coming in the clothes he has dressed it in, particularly in casting, and focusing as it does on the extremely contentious issue of identity politics with its many racial, sexual and gender ramifications, could hardly strike stronger contemporary chords,
Medical matters and its ethics are, of course as the title implies, its central theme. Are doctors above politics, above religious belief? Do medical criteria take precedence over a patient’s wishes. Or, as in this case and in so many that have grabbed recent headlines, a family’s wishes?
A Jewish doctor refuses access for a priest to offer the last rites to a young Catholic girl, suffering from the consequences of a botched abortion. She is not known to have expressed a wish to see the priest; the parents have requested it. The girl herself is, however, delirious.
Juliet Stevenson’s secular Jewish Dr Wolff takes a decision on what she believes are medical grounds only: namely that his presence would panic the young woman with the realisation of her imminent death. For the sake of a `peaceful’ death, Dr Wolff will not allow it.
For the next two and a half hours, we witness the disastrous consequences. On a bare stage, with a cast in white coats, we watch the vicious infighting that ensues as Dr Wolff – who founded the medical institute twenty years before – is taken to task by disapproving ambitious colleagues and junior doctors.
Arguments sway backwards and forwards; counter-intuitive casting – multicultural, cross-gendered – highlight the ambiguities, rivalries, and complications buzzing within and without the institute as matters escalate and mushroom out of control, taken up by protest groups, exacerbated as in our contemporary society, not just by newspapers but exponentially, and terrifyingly, by social media.
Watching Juliet Stevenson as Ruth Wolff is to watch a proud beast tormented, at bay, but standing her ground with a catastrophic sense of certainty. Stevenson’s Wolff never doubts herself – except perhaps at home where Icke’s adaptation raises the spectre of Wolff having a hidden lesbian lover (the ever reliable Joy Richardson) she will not allow to be public knowledge.
Stevenson’s tight lipped Wolff – see how her feet and toes curl in on themselves, her arms kept protectively permanently crossed across her chest – is the picture of defensive and physical rigidity, witch-hunted to the very end.
Never able to do half measures, Stevenson’s remarkable (the word hardly does her credit) performance takes her and us to the edge. There is a moment after the interval – in which Stevenson spends the whole time motionless on stage – when she starts circling the stage finally crashing a mobile phone against the back stage wall – all her character’s anger and despair exploding in an action of ferocious release.
Icke’s production, accompanied by a live, softly throbbing percussion score from a drummer seated high above (Hannah Ledwidge), can sometimes seem unduly heavy-handed or at other times, deliberately obtuse.
But its two and a half hours fly by, culminating in two beautifully staged, contrasting scenes – one of Dr Wolff’s damning trial-by-television by self-styled and recognisably contemporary `experts’; the other in a reconciliatory conversation with Paul Higgins’ Scottish Catholic priest that manages movingly to touch on a range of feelings and thoughts from change to hope and ultimately our mortality.
© Manuel Harlan, Juliet Stevenson (Ruth Wolff), Ria Zmitrowicz as Sami and Joy Richardson – conversations intertwining, relationships becoming unravelled…
If ever there was a reminder of the dangers of `labels’ and tribal groupings, of our obsession with `identity’ as the crude determining be-all, it is this version of The Doctor.
Problematic, troubling, with a cast who give of themselves with unstinting commitment, once again Icke has pulled off a brilliant reframing.
Undeniably the Peter Brook de nos jours, who has given us visceral, thrilling re-imaginings of Orwell’s 1984, Chekhov’s Three Sisters, The Oresteia and not least Andrew Scott as Hamlet, it’ll be interesting to see where life takes him next.
By Robert Icke
Very freely adapted from Arthur Schnitzler’s Professor Bernhardi
Cast: (in alphabetical order)
Drums: Hannah Ledwidge
Direction: Robert Icke
Design: Hildegard Bechtler
Light: Natasha Chivers
Sound and Composition: Tom Gibbons
Associate Costume Design: Deborah Andrews
Additional Composition: Hannah Ledwidge
Casting: Julia Horan CDG
Resident Director: TD Moyo
Costume Supervision: Megan Doyle
First perf of this production of The Doctor at Almeida Theatre, Aug 10, 2019; runs to Sept 28, 2019
Review published on this website, Aug 26, 2019
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