February 21, 2020


The Doctor’s dilemma

By Miriam Cosic

The Doctor. Phorograph courtesy of Adelaide Festival

Director Robert Icke on rewriting the classic Austrian play to explore contemporary moral conundrums

For an enfant terrible, Robert Icke is remarkably soft-spoken, even tentative. And yet his theatre making is remarkably controversial, both politically and aesthetically, and resolutely self-assured.

The 33-year-old English writer-director is bringing one of his pieces of time travel to the Adelaide Festival this year. For it, he went back to pre–World War One Austria to transport Arthur Schnitzler’s Professor Bernhardi into the 21st century. The play was so explosive at the time it was written that it was banned in staidly Catholic Austria. To hear Icke tell it, however, his choices haven’t been about trying to shock in our increasingly unshockable age, but to make people think – really think – about the organisation of society and the moral conundrums of our day.

The Doctor, as he has named his version of the play, is the latest in a string of classics Icke has rewritten from scratch. In the first play he reimagined, he transmogrified Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet from a fateful romantic tragedy into a series of what-ifs. It was admired and hated and earned him the success d’estime that presumably propelled him into a gig, the following year in 2013, as an associate director of the edgy Almeida Theatre.

There he won more enduring fame with his re-visioning of the Oresteia, which won him an Olivier Award, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Schiller’s Mary Stuart, Chekov’s Uncle Vanya and more. For Mary Stewart he had the key actors, Lia Williams and Juliet Stevenson, flip a coin on stage at the start of each evening to decide who would play Elizabeth I and who would play her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots. His imagination is boundless.

Juliet Stevenson has become a frequent collaborator and plays the lead role in The Doctor. “I was looking around for texts that might animate Juliet and might offer her a fitting opportunity,” Icke says when asked about his choice of play. In the original, the doctor is a man, and Icke rewrote it as a woman for Stevenson. “It’s similar in that it’s the same story, but the inflection and the emphasis are very different. And, of course, there’s a contemporary lens on it, which changes a lot.”

Icke says that he pursued the question of identity, a key conversation in theatre – indeed, in society at large – these days. He was trying, he says, not to think from a particular point of view but more broadly, more philosophically.

“That led me back to the Schnitzler play, which is in some ways a very old-fashioned play with a huge cast of all men,” he says. “But one of the things I was really struck by is that it takes the central identity conflict of the day – that is, between a Jewish man and a Catholic city – and finds a dramatic incident which sparks off that conflict. In its time and context, it was explosive. I’m not sure you can do that now.”

In the late 19th century, Vienna had been a wealthy and cosmopolitan imperial capital. Jews moved relatively easily in society. Along with literary luminaries such as Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Karl Kraus, Alfred Schnitzler, a Jew, became a leader of the Young Vienna literary movement. Sigmund Freud called him his Döppelganger and marvelled that the writer could come to conclusions via intuition that he himself had to laboriously observe, collate and interpret.

Schnitzler, however, was caught up in the rising European anti-Semitism that eventually led to the horrors of World War Two. France had had the Dreyfus affair. Catholic Austria was roiling with it and the Jewish cream of its cultural and scientific life was vilified and hounded by the right-wing press. Vienna’s mayor, the notorious anti-Semite Karl Lueger, would later become a role model for fellow-Austrian Adolf Hitler.

Schnitzler wrote few wrote few works that focused specifically on Jewish identity, but Professor Bernhardi was one of them. In it, the protagonist, a Jewish doctor, is caring for a young woman who is dying of sepsis after a botched abortion. In extremis, her hallucinations are making her happy and hopeful. When a priest is summoned to deliver the last rites, Bernhardi refuses him entrance, wishing to spare the girl the anguish of realising she is dying.

The play unspools in philosophical arguments on both sides. Bernhardi is put on trial, loses the case, and is sacked from the clinic he helped found. His licence to practise is revoked, and he spends time in jail. The play was first performed in Berlin in 1912, but banned, inevitably, in Austria until the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed at the end of World War One.

Schnitzler’s fame has faded; indeed it had begun to while he was still alive. There have been notable resurrections of some of his texts by the cognoscenti, however: Max Ophüls’ film La Ronde (1950), David Hare’s play The Blue Room (1998) and Stanley Kubrick’s film Eyes Wide Shut (1999), for example.

The playwright, and this play in particular, are just the kind of ideas-based exploration that would intrigue Icke. “If I’m in London now, thinking what is the identity conflict… Is that between races? Between genders? Between political tribes? Between educated and not educated?” he asks rhetorically. “So it seems to me we need to think about identity more philosophically: about what it is and where we need it and why we have it, and where it becomes a source for good and where it isn’t.”

Dr Ruth Wolf in his retelling is a secular Jew. She too refuses the priest access to the dying girl, and it blows up not only in parliament but in the populist venues of today: social media, television debates, petition-writing. Questions of gender, race and class are raised and Icke mixes those up to spring surprises on the audience. Two particularly contemporary questions saturate the work: the priority of medical ethics and the dangers of overplaying identity. The Guardian’s theatre critic, Michael Billington, who has not always been friendly to Icke’s work, thought it “a brilliant expansion of the original’s themes” when it premiered in London in August.

Icke’s provocation is not to answer the questions he raises. That’s the audience’s job. “For me,” he says, “there’s only any point in doing drama if you feel that there are at least two possible answers to the question you’re trying to explore. Often at the end of the process I still don’t know where I stand on any of it. And if you don’t know how to balance the arguments out, that has to mean you’re on decent territory in drama.

“I don’t think you have any control over what an audience thinks. They come in with a whole lot of things they already think, and trying to change people’s minds with argument in theatre you’re on a hiding to nothing. Essays are much better at long-form argument.

Theatre happens somewhere in the air between the audience and the actors, and it’s weighted differently every night: “Different audiences might feel some things more sharply than other things. And so everybody is mixing their own version of it, depending on the day they had, or their own politics, or their own relationships…”

He had signed Stevenson up before he’d even started writing it. Revising Schnitzler for her in the title role made him rethink the differences between social expectations in the early 1900s and in the early 2000s.

“We’re used to men in positions of power and authority. That feels super-familiar. But there’s something more complicated about the identity relationship,” Icke points out. “No one is delighted to say, ‘Our senior surgeon is a man.’ That’s meaningless. But you do hear people saying, ‘Isn’t it fantastic we’ve got a woman in that job.’ And suddenly that character’s identity becomes part of what the play means. That makes it a more involved moral decision.

“I would find it potentially more interesting if the reason the girl had not decided to terminate her pregnancy, or had decided too late, is because she herself is religious. Then we’re dealing with a personal set of priorities rather than an organisational set of priorities.”

For Schnitzler, the illegality of abortion wasn’t an issue. There is no argument in the original play for or against it: it is assumed it is wrong. In order to make it work in a secular age, Icke wrestled with the reasons people still want to be a member of a group like Christianity, still think it worthwhile and rewarding. The idea isn’t as obvious as it would have been in Schnitzler’s day. “We live in such a spiritually impoverished time, and we’re so physical and so pathological in the way we navigate through the world. I think there are things that we do start to crave again, having abolished them.”

So why fiddle with an established text? Why not take the problems that intrigue you in that text and begin anew? “It’s now a long-established trope that there are only so many narrative archetypes,” he points out, “so all new plays are adaptations of old plays and old material. Every time a story is retold we might learn something different about it, from the retelling of that story in the time we find ourselves in.”

He is interested in finding the truths available to us in our time within the old stories. Questions of religion or propriety may change, but we still have our red lines and they are reinforced by the silos social media has forced us into.

Working from old plays, what’s more, requires a different set of skills than starting from scratch in one’s own era. “How do you capture the richness of the original?” Icke says. “At times you have to be untrue to the letter of the law to be true to the spirit of it.”


The Doctor will run at the Adelaide Festival from February 27 to March 8.

Miriam Cosic

Miriam Cosic is a Sydney-based journalist and author.

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