Almeida Theatre, London – until 28 September 2019
The play Professor Bernhardi had its premiere in 1912 Berlin, after Vienna – its setting and the author’s homeland – refused it a licence. Arthur Schnitzler was, like Chekhov, a doctor; he was an Austrian Jew at a time when mistrust was rising. The story belongs passionately to that time: but director Robert Icke’s very free adaptation belongs – urgently and exhilaratingly – to our own.
The doctor – here a woman, Juliet Stevenson as Ruth – is the founder-director of a hospital. A child of 14 is dying of sepsis after a self-administered abortion. Her Catholic parents, hurrying home, send a message that she must have their priest perform the last rites. He arrives, but the doctor judges that it would distress the girl to realise she was dying. She refuses the priest entry. But a nurse has told the child, so she dies in panic after all. The ensuing furore, fed by the grieving parents and laced with anti-semitism, wrecks the Jewish Professor’s life.
Icke takes this century-old story and hurls it, with a violent drumbeat from above the bare stage, into the combative craziness of the modern world. The row, alas, will be all too recognisable to a 21c medical establishment (think of the death threats to Great Ormond St doctors over Charlie Gard).
He conjures up a wild, bitter tangle of grandstanding hysteria, professional disdain, pressure-cooker populism, political cowardice and multiple identity-victimhood claims. Stevenson is the heart of the whirlwind, and around the other ten are cast with deliberate slipperiness, sometimes changing characters. Often one is declared as being of a different race: it is oddly refreshing to hear a white man excoriating the fact that he’s the only black one in the team, and to have a white Irish priest referred to as having been insulted as a black man when he was barred entry to the girl’s ward. I am not sure why this works, but it does. It certainly ramps up the absurdity of identity politics.
Quite apart from Schnitzler’s original issues of anti-semitism, religious mistrust, professional authority and the argument over false hope being in a patient’s ‘best interests’, Icke hurls in every available extra issue: racism, sexism, colonial guilt, transgender identity, LGBT, Alzheimers, suicide and the internet’s nurturing of outrage.
As one doctor cries: “Last time we chopped up the world into separate identity groups we know where that led. To tattoos on people’s wrists.” Accused of child murder and Nazism, Professor Ruth snaps that the shallow outrage (a petition rises to fifty thousand in moments) will lead to an X-factor world. \ Her own qualification, she says, is handed out by medical school, not “by people sitting in their back bedrooms and screaming on the Internet…Do you want to achieve something? Well – do something well! And put your name on it!”
But they crush her. Two wickedly brilliant scenes: the hospital committee combining moral cowardice with funding-hunger, and a darkly comic trial-by-TV as a ghastly panel is ranged against her. A “Creation Voice” spokeswoman demands religious input, an anti-abortionist twists the record to accuse her of having done the botched termination herself, a “post-colonial social politics” academic insists “the anger is about who owns language” . Even the Jewish spokesman objects to her not practising Judaism. Diverse themselves but united in “woke” disapproval, they are a truly modern horror.
As a show it is pure essence of Icke, turbo-charged by the emotional rocket that is Stevenson. The director-adapter has overloaded it: like a rogue Catherine-wheel whirling off its pin it heads in too many directions. But it is gripping, and Juliet Stevenson is a marvel, with her strange lurking half-smile crumpling to devastation and a terrifying emotional depth. Here’s integrity, arrogance, disdain, humour, fury ,outrage; once she runs around the curved bare space like a trapped animal. In quiet domestic interludes she is human, flawed and doubly grieving. In a final reflective conversation with the priest whose arrival started it all there are glimpses of deep doctorly meditation on life, death, and the value of hoping. Ironically, in the end the dog-collar and the white coat are both concerned with faith and hope.
The updating is perfect for our times too: its one logical snag will only be noticed by Catholics, because since the 1970s the ‘Sacrament of the Sick” has not been seen – as it once was – as “Extreme Unction”for deathbeds only. Nor would a modern priest presume that a 14 year old was headed for hell unless anointed. But that’s a quibble. You won’t regret the ticket.
box office 020 7359 4404 to 28 september www.almeida.co.uk