February 29, 2020

Adelaide Festival – Exactly what this Doctor ordered

The Doctor
by Robert Icke
Very freely adapted from Arthur Schnitzler’s Professor Bernhardi.
Almeida Theatre, London.
in association with Adelaide Festival.
Dunstan Playhouse. Adelaide Festival Centre.
February 28. Tickets $ 45 – $129.
Duration: 2 Hours 40 minutes including interval.
Until March 8.

Robert Icke has energised current UK theatre with his versions of Aeschylus’s Oresteia, Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya and George Orwell’s 1984. He describes adaptation as “like using a foreign plug. You are in a country where your hair dryer won’t work when you plug it straight in. You have to find the adaptor which will let the electricity of now into the old thing and make it function.”

With his newest production, The Doctor, which opened in London in August last year and is now playing in the Adelaide Festival, Icke has definitely plugged in to the electricity of now.

Using Viennese playwright Arthur Schnitzler’s fascinating 1912 play, Professor Bernhardi, about a Jewish medical doctor who refuses to allow a priest to give the last rites to a young girl dying from a botched abortion, Icke has created 21st century Ruth Wolff, a high profile director of the Elizabeth Clinic. Bernhardi is pilloried in the press in an anti-semitic outcry which ruins his career. Wolff, nominally Jewish, is similarly attacked, but is also embroiled in online trolling and media accusations of white privilege, elitism and gender bias. The private clinic she runs is caught in a PR nightmare and in multiple power plays and double-crosses Wolff becomes the sacrificial lamb.

The play is long and detailed but Robert Icke’s direction is brisk and bold. Hildegard Bechtler’s curved wood panel set (simply but warmly lit by Natasha Chivers’ suspended fluoro tubes) functions as both work and domestic space with a long steel frame table and benches (moving slowly on a small revolve) used for staff meetings, kitchen conversations and Wolff’s solitary contemplations. High above the stage Hannah Ledwidge and her drum kit drive the action, along with Tom Gibbons’ heart monitor soundscape.

The cast of twelve is remarkable to watch. The diverse casting is deliberately against type – ethnically, and in gender-crossing – and the multiple roles work to challenge our assumptions and biases.

The scheming male surgeon Hardiman is played by Naomi Wirthner, Brian Cyprian by Anni Domingo, well in to the play we discover white-skinned Jamie Parker is a black priest. The layers of identity, the markers and signifiers which we rely on in theatre casting are subverted and vividly dramatise the play’s themes especially during the television panel interrogation which compounds Wolff’s predicament.

There are many excellent performances. Joy Richardson as Wolff’s partner Charlie, Liv Hill as Sami her troubled young confidante, Shelley Conn as Flint, her protégé turned cabinet minister. But it is Juliet Stevenson who galvanises the production. Her clarity and intelligence, the unerring precision she brings to this principled, dogmatic, flawed yet heroic central character is extraordinary. The Doctor will not heal our ills but it has given us a formidable diagnosis of our time.

“Exactly what this Doctor ordered”, The Australian, March 3, 2020. P.14.

Murray Bramwell

No Comments »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment