This update of Schnitzler’s warning against antisemitism punctures every preconception
The director of the prestigious, privately funded Elizabeth Institute refuses a Catholic priest access to a patient to whom he wants to give the last rites. The patient in question, a delirious 14-year-old dying from sepsis following a botched abortion, thinks she is recovering. As there's no information about her last wishes, Doctor Ruth Wolff sees it as her medical duty to ensure the girl dies peacefully, without distress caused by the sight of the priest. In turn, the priest insists on his religious duty to save the soul of even a nominal Catholic. During their heated argument, the patient dies.
The incident escalates in the echo chamber of social media into a political scandal threatening to ruin both doctor and institute. The culturally, but not religiously, Jewish Dr Wolff is accused of attacking the feelings of both Christians and the black community, exposing the lurking antisemitism within the Elizabeth Institute. She is hounded in the media spotlight, climaxing with a merciless trial by a television panel of ‘expert' judges.
To Hannah Ledwidge’s unsettling drumbeats, the cast circle warily around designer Hildegard Bechtler’s clinical tables and benches, under Natasha Chivers’ harsh, flickering lamps.
Director Robert Icke, freely adapting from Arthur Schnitzler’s 1912 drama Professor Bernhardi, sticks closely to the original plot, examining just how easy it is still to systematically manipulate an isolated incident to achieve unrelated goals and ambitions and settle scores. And can one afford to be individual and apolitical, however enlightened and humanistic, whilst ignoring the perceptions and politicking of wider society? That’s Icke’s question to which there are no easy answers.
Schnitzler used Bernhardi to explore his own conflicted identity as doctor, Jew and Austrian in the light of casual antisemitism employed to further individual agendas. Additionally, Icke uses the doctor’s over-confident single identity as 'physician' to show we are all subject to labels others choose for us.
Juliet Stevenson is riveting in the title role, ferociously intelligent and not afraid to present as unsympathetic. "BB (big bad) Wolff", as her colleagues dub her (and not affectionately), doesn’t suffer fools gladly, or anyone else. Yet it is devastating to watch the ground crumble beneath her as she discovers she is mortal.
Icke expressly demands that each actor’s identity should be directly discordant with their character’s, forcing audiences to reconsider characters and events as the details emerge in the unfolding story. So it comes as a shock when Wolff is accused of prejudice against the black priest, played by white Scots actor Paul Higgins (as unbending in his unassailable religious faith as Stevenson’s doctor is in her scientific certainty), the audience’s preconceptions casting him as white until this accusation.
Naomi Wirthner brilliantly switches between Wolff’s male adversary within the Institute and a self-righteous female TV judge, both of whom prove equally menacing. The cast are uniformly excellent at rising to Icke’s challenges. Ultimately it is the audience who are called upon to do the same. Judging by heated discussions going on long after the standing ovation, his wake-up call is prescient.
By Judi Herman
Photos by Manuel Harlan
The Doctor runs until Saturday 28 September. 7.30pm, 2.30pm (Wed & Sat only). £10-£42.50. Almeida Theatre, N1 1TA. https://almeida.co.uk