(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 8/21.)

Juliet Stevenson delivers one of the peak performances of the theatrical year in Robert Icke’s striking reimagining of Schnitzler

As a director and writer, Robert Icke specialises in updating the classics. But where his version of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck struck me as an impertinence, this adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s Professor Bernhardi is a brilliant expansion of the original’s themes. Icke’s production also yields a performance by Juliet Stevenson that is one of the peaks of the theatrical year.

First performed in 1912, Schnitzler’s play offers a devastating portrait of Viennese antisemitism in showing a Jewish doctor attacked for refusing a Catholic priest permission to administer the last rites to a patient. Icke retains Schnitzler’s premise while subtly rewriting it. His protagonist, Ruth Wolff, is a secular Jew who runs a prestigious institute specialising in Alzheimer’s disease. But when Ruth prevents a priest seeing a 14-year-old girl dying from a self-administered abortion, the incident acquires a toxic publicity. It goes viral on social media, provokes petitions and TV debates, and jeopardises not only Ruth’s future but that of the institute and a government-bankrolled new building. 

Stevenson beautifully portrays the human cost of making medicine one’s god

Impressively, Icke enlarges the original to take on not just religion but also race, gender and class. He even adds a creative dissonance in casting women to play male roles, black actors to play white characters and vice versa.

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Photo: London Theatre

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