Three years on from its acclaimed opening at the Almeida Theatre, Robert Icke’s reimagining of Schnitzler’s 1912 play, Professor Bernhardi, arrives at the Duke of York’s Theatre. The Doctor poses near-impossible questions surrounding identity, religion and duty that spark fierce and complex debate, leaving your head spinning with lingering, hypothetical wonderings long after the performance has finished. Through bold casting, intelligent direction and calculating language this production bears all the hallmarks of a modern classic.


Returning once more to this production is Juliet Stevenson, with her Olivier-nominated performance of Ruth Wolff - a renowned doctor and Alzheimer’s researcher who is targeted after refusing to admit a catholic priest to see a girl dying from a self-administered abortion. Controversy spirals and working relationships splinter as Ruth’s actions and Jewish heritage are hauled into the spotlight to face the twenty-first century equivalent of a public hanging.


As with the original production, the casting is both gender and race-blind, therefore forcing the audience to strip away any preconceived bias (a major theme of the play) that we may have towards any particular character. Whilst potentially risky in its undertaking, it is highly effective in adding additional revelations throughout because we are unable to see race in the same way the characters can. Further choices in the direction prove vital in ensuring this piece moves at pace when navigating intricate arguments. Despite being heavily reliant on its vibrant dialogue, the lengthy play remains dynamic and progressive, with more static scenes supported by the subtlest of stage revolves - often landing on timely and climactic imagery.

The strength of this play lies in Icke's ability to sculpt language to efficiently yet delicately convey character, plot and meaning simultaneously. Some of his most minor lines of dialogue carry the weight and power of entire paragraphs. The conversations feel natural and grounded, with even the most heated moments feeling well crafted. Icke’s writing is a masterclass to witness.


Despite being nearly three hours in length there is an overbearing (both literally and figuratively) drive and rhythm forcing the play onward. Positioned above the action is Hannah Ledwidge, using her drum kit to accent the crescendos and provide a fantastic beating pulse when needed. An excellent creative choice.


At last, we can turn to this outstanding cast. At the helm, we have Juliet Stevenson who once again proves her grit and talent as Wolff. Her commanding, fiery confidence is infectious and the cast around her thrives in her company. Equally strong in the initial clinical scenes as she is as vulnerability and glimmers of empathy rise to the surface - a marvel of a performance.

The ensemble are wisely cast, each one decisive and deliberate in their performances. They are able to further elevate Icke’s already impressive script and form the collapsing world around Stevenson’s character. Notable mentions must be given to Naomi Wirthner as the aggressively caring and righteous Hardiman, John Mackay who enjoys a stunning and fragile scene with Stevenson in act two and finally Mathilda Tucker who makes an impressive west end debut.


It is rare for a play to be so bold in deciding to tackle a wide range of intimidating topics with such vigour but it is rarer still for a play to face them successfully. The creative team have produced something spectacular that is equally excruciating as it is enlightening. Icke’s ability to wield such complex ideas into a single play is honestly breathtaking and perhaps highlights how interconnected the likes of racism, misogyny, privilege, sexuality and mental health are. So was the unfortunate pandemic-enforced delay to this transfer worth the wait? Yes. Yes, it was.


It runs till 11 December.


Review: Henry Longstaff    Photo: Manuel Harlan