Almeida Theatre, London – until 28 September 2019
Robert Icke’s final production for the Almeida, after spectacular successes including Mary Stuart, Andrew Scott’s Hamlet and The Wild Duck, is a complete reworking of a play by Arthur Schnitzler. He rips the original play, Professor Bernhardi, out of its turn-of-the-century Vienna setting, and drops it into the information age.
Disturbingly, the central theme of anti-semitism remains seems as relevant. However, other 21st century issues have been added to the mix: specifically sexism, other forms of racism, ageism, and transgender prejudice. Icke makes a fascinating move by using complete gender-blind and racially-blind casting. This holds the play’s identity politics up to immediate question when a white actor declares himself the only black doctor in the hospital. However, there are too many issues for any one play to carry and, while, the performances and staging are exemplary, the evening seems more like an episode of The Moral Maze than a natural, inevitable drama.
Anything with Juliet Stevenson is worth watching, whatever its faults. She plays Ruth Wolff, a dementia expert at the top of her profession. She is arrogant and self-assured, unaware that her inability to relate to other people is a tragic flaw. She refuses a priest access to a dying girl and, within three days, her career is destroyed in a social media-fuelled cataclysm. She is arrogant and self-assured, unaware that her inability to relate to other people is a tragic flaw. Stevenson is brittle, fierce and vulnerable. Her mastery of emotional nuance means it is hard to take your eyes off her extraordinarily expressive face.
Two performances stand out in a strong cast. Ria Zmitrowicz, who recently made her mark in the Almeida’s Three Sisters, puts in a perfect performance as Ruth’s transgender teenaged friend who she inevitably betrays. And Nathalie Armin, as calculating yet sympathetic Government minister, is excellent but under-used.
However, while the standard of performance is high it is hard to believe in Icke’s adaptation. It relies on a couple of transitional moments which are essential to the plot, but hard to credit. There are complex and current questions to be explored but, ultimately, the play needs greater focus and simplicity to make it seem like real life.