Today’s culture of trial by Twitter has its downsides, but it does provide space for the reimagination of a rich dramatic tradition: theater in which righteous individuals stand by their principles and get mauled for their troubles.
Coriolanus, with his belief in propity over political flexibility, is a natural victim of the twenty-four-hour news-and-comment cycle – a collision brilliantly explored by Ralph Fiennes in his 2011 film adaptation of Shakespeare’s tragedy, in which common curs line up to give their sestertius’s worth on Fidelis TV. Dr Stockmann, of Henrik Ibsen’s An enemy of the people (1882), with his unpopular discovery of bacterial contamination in a lucrative new spa, seems ready-made for an era in which expertise clashes with opinion, people can lose their jobs for saying the wrong thing and newspapers run headlines condemning diligent professionals as … well, “enemies of the people”. (See Kieran Hurley’s contemporary reworking of the play as The Enemy for National Theater of Scotland in 2021.)
Arthur Schnitzler’s Professor Bernhardy (1912) is another play that slots neatly into this mould. Much like An enemy of the people, it features a doctor who performs his role with rigor and refuses to play politics, thus coming as a cropper. A rare piece of Schnitzler that stars a specifically Jewish protagonist – and isn’t much interested in sex – the play follows the row that erupts after the title character refuses to allow a priest, who has arrived to administer last rites, access to a dying patient. The patient is fatally haemorrhaging following an abortion, but believes she will survive. Bernhardi reasons that she’ll die a peaceful death if left alone; if she sees the priest her final moments are likely to be tormented.
The storm that descends in the wake of this decision is rooted in the vicious antisemitism of early-twentieth-century Vienna. In Robert Icke’s sinuous adaptation – which has belatedly transferred to London’s West End, following a first run at the Almeida in 2019 – the antisemitism remains, but the theme is now enmeshed in the broader tapestry of modern identity politics. Underpinning this bold development is the inspired decision to cast blind, such that the gender and ethnicity of the actors bear no relation to the gender and ethnicity of their characters. What we see is not what demands to be seen – or demands to be ignored – leading to uncomfortable questions about the interplay between who we are, what we believe, what we experience and how others experience us.
The Doctor opens on Hildegard Bechtler’s appropriately antiseptic set with the bustle of a television hospital drama: all urgent dialogue and excitable percussion. (Tom Gibbons’s sound design is integral to the pace of the production; Hannah Ledwidge on drums sits visible, high above the stage.) The theme of medical ethics is shoved before our noses when two doctors bet on the outcome of an autopsy. Was it the liver or the kidneys? But there’s nothing under hand: the answer simply affirms the brilliance of the institute’s director, Dr Ruth Wolff, who has judged correctly.
“BB” (as in “Big Bad” Wolff) is clearly more admired than loved. “Woman in name only”, sneers one of her male colleagues. A stickler for language, including the correct use of object pronouns, she is both bark and bite. “Dr Murphy, have you cured dementia?” she snaps. “Is there nowhere for you to be?” Although this is an Alzheimer’s research clinic, Wolff has – for reasons never made sufficiently clear – taken in a fourteen-year-old girl whose self-administered abortion has gone catastrophically wrong. When the priest arrives Wolff is bullish – “You walk in like the grim reaper” – and a mild scuffle ensues. The incident, of course, is recorded. The priest has been sent by the girl’s parents, who are now uncontactable on an aeroplane in the dash to see their daughter. As a minor the girl is thus officially in Dr Wolff’s charge.
After the girl dies – in distress, we discover – the moral backlash begins. The institute, which has a strong Jewish presence, is attacked on social media via the usual dog whistles. It is sponsored, people claim, by a “club of anonymous donors”. A petition refers to the “consultant in charge, who is not a Christian”. Later the dead girl’s father will launch a tirade against “the whole fucking cabal… I will exact that pound of flesh”. One of Wolff’s colleagues – a Catholic – believes she should offer an apology. He might as well ask Coriolanus. Further tension then breaks over the appointment of a new doctor at the institute. Wolff has the presiding vote, and her choice – based on medical ability – happens to be a white Jewish woman. The Catholic doctor – based partly on optics – favors a Black Catholic man.
The writing is on the wall – in 280 characters. Wolff is simply not wise up enough to deal with what follows. Medical ethics trump all, let the others deal with the rest. She has no interest in individual identity, only “progress”. This, others might contend, is her privilege as a white woman (even if the woman part “still counts”) – an argument complicated when it emerges (to the audience) that the priest, played by a white man, is Black.
As for her own identity, Wolff professes to feel more “doctor” than “person”. She hardly considers herself Jewish; certainly, she isn’t religious. Faith for her is candles to electric lighting – at best a case of “decorative knick-knacks”. But people do think of her as a Jew, observes a colleague. “I thought you do the candles thing on Friday,” remarks her old friend, the Minister for Health. The politician would like to give the institute more money, but fears public opinion. She advises Wolff to fight fire with fire: given that this is twenty-first-century Britain (not pre-First World War Vienna), might playing the Jewish card actually help? Wolff wants nothing to do with it.
As she digs her heels in, the situation spirals out of control, with board resignations, threats to funding and a hideous attack on the doctor’s home. Finally she decides to face her public in a brilliant set piece, in the form of a television program called “Take the Debate”. (The host, played by Chris Osikanlu Colquhoun, wonderfully channels his inner Michael Buerk.) Facing down a variety of expert witnesses, Wolff proceeds to tie herself in knots, claiming that “words are just words” to a Black professor of postcolonial studies, who then challenges her to say the “n” one. In defense of precision Wolff employs a clumsy metaphor: “When you mix up all your colours, all you get is brown”.
Unlike Coriolanus (a hard-to-like hero) or even the pompous Dr Stockmann, Dr Wolff is sympathetic even in her abrasiveness and obduracy. Brilliantly realized by Juliet Stevenson, who manages to steal the show without hogging the limelight, she is unshockable, unflappable – if easily piqued – a plain-speaking whirlwind of self-possession, integrity and wit. She may not suffer fools, but she does give credit where it’s due. And she can be tender. Her back story is fleshed out (not entirely satisfactorily) via memories of her relationship with a former lover (sensitively played by Juliet Garricks) and her maternal friendship with a local teenager (played with exaggerated ingenuousness by Matilda Tucker, Icke’s one directional misstep). We also see that Wolff is lonely, too much in her own head – which is part of her problem.
Her tragedy is to have endangered her career – and the institute’s future – for a point of principle. A small fib of false contrition could have brought a wider good. Her antagonist, the priest, proves to be more wily in serving his god. But when he visits Wolff in a moving late scene, it becomes clear they’re not so different, especially when it comes to hope.
As a piece of drama The Doctor is engrossing: tightly written and supported by other excellent performances, including Naomi Wirthner and Daniel Rabin as Wolff’s hostile colleagues Hardiman and Murphy, and John Mackay as the priest. Intellectually, it can be a little messy. When the professor of postcolonial studies first challenges Dr Wolff, the attack feels like cheap point-scoring – and thus cheap point-scoring by Icke against professors of postcolonial studies. When she lands that hit about the power of language, however, we are meant to take stock – and we do – but is this just more distraction? Icke doesn’t seem sure, an uncertainty underlined when the entire identity-politics strand seems to fade away in the play’s closing scenes. Yet these loose ends aren’t entirely to the play’s detriment. Identity politics is a messy business. If it’s guidelines you’re after, don’t go looking for a dramatist. You’d be better off talking to a doctor.
Toby Lichtigis Fiction and Politics Editor of theTLS
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