Anyone who knows anything about theatre will be intimately familiar with Arthur Schnitzler’s classic play Professor Bernhardi.
Although the Austrian dramatist’s 1912 play is known in some academic circles, it has long been a near total obscurity outside of them. So you might be surprised to know that The Doctor, a hugely acclaimed new version of it, is about to hit the West End. You might have even seen it already.
“I do not know Professor Bernhardi or Schnitzler,” says Clare, a business psychologist who saw The Doctor in Brighton ahead of its pandemic-delayed transfer to London’s West End. “I’d never heard of the play or the writer,” echoes Liz, an Edinburgh-based arts administrator who caught The Doctor during its massively acclaimed run at the Almeida Theatre in north London in 2019.
“I had an overall sense of what [Professor Bernhardi] was about,” says Mert, an academic who saw The Doctor in 2019, “and I remember wanting to read the ‘original’ – but I couldn’t find a copy anywhere!”
So, pretty obscure then. But that’s OK, because another name proves to be a bigger deal when it comes to The Doctor: one of the most acclaimed British theatre directors of his generation, Robert Icke. The success of Icke’s adaptation of the play highlights his rare status as an artist – one who has cultivated a loyal audience that will come to see anything he directs on his name alone.
“I’d seen quite a lot of his shows: 1984, Oresteia, The Wild Duck, Hamlet, Uncle Vanya, probably some others,” says Holly, a novelist who caught The Doctor in 2019. “I definitely consider myself a fan,” she says. “I associate his work with modern interpretations of classics, incredibly intelligent direction, and really powerful but really natural performances from great actors.”
“I first became aware of him as ‘the guy who directed that Andrew Scott Hamlet’,” says Matt, a journalist who saw The Doctor at the Almeida, where Icke had previously showcased his famous reworking of Shakespeare’s Hamlet starring Andrew Scott, before it moved to the West End and later to a prime time BBC Two slot in 2018.
Not that you need prior knowledge of Icke’s oeuvre to appreciate The Doctor. Clare, who saw it in Brighton, had not seen any of his work before.
Indeed, for her the big draw was the play’s star, actor Juliet Stevenson. She won great acclaim in 2019 for her performance as Ruth Wolff, the titular doctor, whose refusal to allow a priest to administer last rites to a young woman who doesn’t know she’s dying alienates her from everyone in her town.
“I thought she was absolutely excellent,” says Clare. “Beautifully brusque and self-controlled in the first half, and vulnerable and affecting in the second.”
“Juliet Stevenson is incredible in the role,” says Joshua, who was a student when he saw the production’s first run at the Almeida back in 2019. “It’s such an incredibly precise performance that matched her character’s attempts to be precise in everything she does. It’s still very memorable three years on.”
The play itself is pretty spectacular too, mind. Where the original’s eponymous Professor Bernhardi is the victim of an antisemitic backlash, The Doctor is set in the social media age and sees Wolff condemned on the grounds of pretty much everything. This is helped along by the deliberately non-literal casting of the production.
“The play has an amazing thing throughout where you retrospectively reappraise what you are seeing, from the very first scene to the last,” says Joshua. “It makes you doubt your assumptions, sometimes in clever ways and in others that are extremely moving.”
“It really stood up to my previous expectations of his work,” says Holly. “A forceful and focused rewriting of a text, bringing it into the contemporary world and kicking around a lot of knotty ideas.”
“It took my breath away,” says Mert. “In part because I didn’t quite know what to expect. I was ready for it to be good, given Icke’s oeuvre and Juliet Stevenson’s customary brilliance – but that was the extent of my anticipation. After seeing it, I found its meditation on identity politics, language, and mortality to be bitingly intelligent and clinically precise.”
Ultimately, Icke wouldn’t be such a big deal if it was just north London theatre hipsters getting excited about his work. Rather, he is a proven hitmaker, his productions have connected with mass audiences time and time again. The Doctor is the fifth of his shows in under a decade to transfer from the 325-seat Almeida to the West End (and more are due in the near future with his versions of Oresteia and Animal Farm). His gift lies in taking old works that often haven’t been seen by a commercial audience in this country for decades, or possibly ever – such as Oresteia or Mary Stuart – and turning them into fresh, contemporary works that typically have a much greater emotional impact than the originals.
“His productions tell these stories as if you don’t know them,” says Liz, “whether it’s a very famous play like Hamlet or something less well known, the shows really focus on telling the story, getting away from that tick box of ‘I know what’s coming next’. Also, the casting and performances tend to be pretty impeccable.”
“He treats us as active participants,” says Matt. “Every decision is designed to provoke and play with the audience, whereas a lot of drama is just a show to them.”
“He knows how to brush off enough of the dust so that it feels new and clean and shiny, while still letting us all feel virtuous or highbrow for watching a classic,” says Holly. “Maybe his cleverness makes audiences feel clever, and we like that? Also, having very well-known actors lining up to work with him and getting absolutely banging performances out of them doesn’t hurt,” she says.
The Doctor is coming to the West End: be sure not to miss your appointment.
The Doctor is at the Duke of York’s Theatre, 29 September-11 December