Adelaide Festival Theatre (5 March 2020)
(Written and Directed by Robert Icke; adapted from the play “Professor Bernhardi” by Arthur Schnitzler)
This piece is a playground for ethicists, a sociologist’s paradise, and a nod to Lord Melbourne, who said of Macauley, “I wish that I was as sure of any one thing, as Tom Macaulay is sure of everything.” Whilst a contemporary adaptation of a 1912 play, set in the antisemitic and ferociously Catholic Austrian Empire, takes hostages to anachronism, the dilemmas raised remain fresh and probably insoluble.
Dr Ruth Wolff (Juliet Stevenson) is the founder and head of the prestigious Elizabeth Institute (in the original, named after the Empress Elisabeth, now conveniently apt for the English monarch), which works towards a cure for the raft of brain maladies we call dementia. She is brilliant, precise and – pardon the euphemism – she does not suffer fools gladly. She refuses admission to a Catholic priest (Jamie Parker) who has come to give the last rites to a 14 year old girl (at the request of her parents) dying from sepsis caused by a botched abortion. The Priest and the parents obviously believe that “these sacraments provide the forgiveness of sins, help the individual to prepare for death, and bring peace and courage to the sick person as the Holy Spirit guides them on their final steps to eternal life*.” We don’t know what the patient believes but we know what Dr Wolff – a woman of science, a Jewish unbeliever – thinks of it all. She has no sign the patient wishes for this and fears it will disturb her right to a peaceful death. Thus she imitates Gandalf at the Bridge, such that ‘none shall pass’, and so the patient passes without the benefit of extreme unction, etc.
The parents complain. The matter goes ‘viral’ as things always did, and do these days only more so. The Institute’s Board is concerned. The Executive is all a-flutter. Dr Wolff thinks it a storm in a teacup but her colleagues – jockeying for position, anxious about the damage to institutional reputation and funding – don’t circle the wagons so much as throw Dr Wolff under them. The Doctor, meanwhile, sticks with the “Never apologise, never explain” rule.
The Second Act starts with a Q & A style programme where Wolff is fed to the wolves of a TV panel, the most ill-advised participation of its kind since Prince Andrew sat down before the cameras. She wants to assert the primacy and purity of Hippocrates but her inquisitors are off into other issues, of gender fluidity, power imbalance, racial-identity politics and ‘intersectionality.’ The trolling continues apace, and gets physical: the patient’s father gives her a punch on the snout, her car is daubed with a swastika, her cat is given some amateur surgery and her house is assailed with bricks. The doctor is rusticated from the Elizabeth Institute, struck-off the medical register, and, with nothing to fall back on but her own resources, finds those offer little with which to break her fall.
There is a rich grab-bag of “issues” arising here, including: Was the Priest shoved?/Would she shove a white man?/Is there a Jewish cabal at the Institute?/Would things spiral out of control if a man had barred the door?/Would it have hurt to let the exorcism proceed? All this is complicated by the toxic mixture of modern identity politics (what Douglas Murray has written of as the ‘Madness of Crowds.’) Assumptions are constantly made and challenged, going beyond religion to matters of race, gender, class, and ‘privilege.’ For a long time, one feels (with the Doctor) that this noise poses an insane distraction (it recalls the great Elaine May line: “It is a moral issue and to me that’s always so much more interesting than a real issue.”) This is enhanced by a device that could have been tiresome, but here becomes intriguing – characters are played against type (women take male roles and vice versa; coloureds (whites) play blacks and vice versa) which accentuates the sense of dissonance and confusion. Indeed, the whole is a sort of entitlement car crash, where ‘rights’ rush towards the intersection, and all the lights are green.
Our essential reservation about the play, which was never less than interesting, is that it lacked synthesis. A morality play, to work effectively, has to cohere in an argument. In widening the scope from the original, there was an attenuation. And the shit-storm hitting the doctor seemed disproportionate, even out-of-date, in such a secular age. These defects might have sunk or at least damaged the play, but then, we were lucky in the actors’ performances. Anni Domingo was great as the demonstrative bureaucrat in Act 1 and the strident panellist in Act 2. Parker as the Priest (doubling as the enraged, vengeful father of the patient) was spot-on. Chris Colquhoun, as the voice of reason on the Executive, and TV moderator, was excellent. Liv Hill as the gender-confused tyke that hangs out with the Doctor at home, was splendid. Mariah Louca, Daniel Rabin and Millicent Wong as medical colleagues (and later panelists) were fine, as was Naomi Wirthner as Dr Wolff’s chief antagonist. Joy Richardson was amusing in the Alan Rickman role from Truly, Madly, Deeply, and Shelley Conn was suave as the treacherous Minister.
Save the best for last: Juliet Stevenson is on stage almost for the duration (even at interval), and manages to draw together the strands of a complex and contradictory personality and its trajectory, from her brusque and exasperated displays of invincibility to her initial stirrings of doubt and realisation. As magnificently rendered by this actor, the Doctor is not a heroine; she is not quite a victim; and she is certainly not the villain as cast by forces beyond her comprehension let alone control. What she is, and here Stevenson’s skill is to the fore, is a human under considerable external pressure and internal chaos, a catspaw for all the righteous minds and “all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.”**
The wood-paneled setting (by Hildegard Bechtler) is simple and uncluttered, refectory-style tables and chairs serving to suggest various hospital rooms, the TV studio, and Wolff’s home; the use of spotlights and freezing of action in moments of violence are well-worn but were effective. The use of jazzy percussion (by Hannah Ledwidge) from above the stage was apposite. Overall, this was first class, enthralling and moving entertainment.[* Oregon Catholic Press website.] [** George Orwell, Essay on Charles Dickens.]