Duke of York’s Theatre, London – until 11 December 2022
This is the return of Robert Icke’s modern version of Schnitzler’s 1912 play, transferred from he Almeida. And no question, it is an opportunity to see one of the finest stage actors of the age – Juliet Stevenson – firing on all cylinders at the centre of a painfully topical play. It is a satirical-philosophical meditation on the evils of group identity overshadowing real layered human personality, a questioning of medial ethics and the role of religion and (in what now feels like an oddly bolted-on final section) a reflection on death and suicide.
The issue of a priest being barred from the bedside of a dying girl post-abortion is agonisingly topical after Roe v Wade. There are some notably fine supporting performances, especially Matilda Tucker as Sami, the doctor’s neighbour’s child. The overhead drum ensemble is a brilliant device for raising the emotional enervation of the heroine’s situation.
So yes, it’s worth the ticket, and in a very good gesture the producers offer £25 tickets to health workers, though few may feel up to three hours of this gloomy intensity at the end of a long day. It is challengingly staged and cast (the half-dozen newcomers to the production represent some tricksy cross-gender-cross-racial casting). The weird shrillness given to the child’s father, ranting that the child will be is condemned to hell fire for lack of the last sacrament, is still frankly crazy, and if such extreme beliefs were ascribed to anyone but Catholids they would not pass theatre’s offensiveness-police by a mile. As a cradle-RC – albeit now lapsed – I was taught fully 60 years ago, by nuns, that the deathbed principle of ‘between the stirrup and the ground’ and that there is nothing magical about sacramental absolution.
Yet although it is mesmeric, probably one to see if you want three hours of serious theatre, there is something about the play’s translation to a big traditional theatre that doesn’t quite gel. Maybe there are detailed tweaks; maybe it’s the casting. It feels ironic that the best scene is almost knockabout funny, satirically so, as a panel questions Ruth on TV from every pious- victimcore point of view available, including “postcolonial”.
Here, though, to express the quality of the play, is part of what I wrote, more beguiled, at the original Almeida showing..Here we go:
“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. 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 realize 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 antisemitism, wrecks the Jewish Professor’s life.
Icke takes this century-old story and 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. He hurls in every available extra issue: racism, sexism, colonial guilt, transgender identity, LGBT, Alzheimers, suicide, and the Internet’s nurturing of outrage. 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.
It is essence of Icke, turbo-charged by the emotional rocket that is Stevenson, but 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. ”
Box office http://www.atgtickets.com. To 11 December
Rating. Still 4