'The Doctor' played at this year's Adelaide Festival. Pic: Tony Lewis

Festivals, Reviews

Postcard from the Adelaide Festival 2: Dramas of Ideas

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The Adelaide Festival ran from February 28 – March 15, 2020. In this postcard HUMPHREY BOWER reviews Almeida Theatre’s The Doctor and Traverse Theatre Company’s Mouthpiece.


It’s been a few weeks since I saw The Doctor and Mouthpiece at the Adelaide Festival. How time flies. Back then the coronavirus was a secondary local topic of conversation and cause for concern, some way behind the Democrat primaries in the United States. Since then, the Covid-19 pandemic has engulfed the world. It’s changed everything – including the global conversation, and my perspective on both plays.

In retrospect, it now seems ironic that The Doctor – which I experienced at the time as a play about identity politics – is fundamentally a medical drama; and even more so that it’s an adaptation of a play by Schnitzler that deals with the ‘virus’ of anti-Semitism.

Similarly, Mouthpiece – which ostensibly deals with exploitation, appropriation and the question of ‘who has the right to tell whose stories’ –when viewed through the lens of the current crisis becomes about economic and social precarity, physical and psychological health, the need for boundaries and ‘distancing’, and even the ethics of whether or not a public gathering (in this case a theatrical performance) should go ahead.

The meaning of work lies in its future reception rather than its intentions, as Walter Benjamin once said.


Arthur Schnitzler was a fin de siècle Viennese-Jewish doctor, playwright and author of fiction. He’s most famous for his literary and dramatic treatment of sexual and class hypocrisy: his most widely translated and performed play Reigen (known in French as La Ronde) was adapted by David Hare as The Blue Room; and his novella Traumnovelle is the basis for Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut.

However he also wrote about anti-Semitism – most directly in Professor Bernhardi. The play is set in Vienna in 1900, when widespread anti-Jewish sentiment was on the rise and being exploited by populist politicians, with consequences Schnitzler could not have predicted but we now know all too well. The play has been updated by Robert Icke as The Doctor.

The plot deals with a Jewish doctor and director of a charity-funded hospital who prevents a Catholic priest from giving the last rites to a female patient dying of septicaemia following a botched abortion. He does so in order to spare her distress because she’s delirious from the infection and unaware that she’s dying; the summoning of the priest is a routine procedure that the doctor decides to overrule.

Nevertheless he’s attacked by the press and falsely accused of striking the priest, the hospital is threatened with bankruptcy, and a law is proposed in parliament banning Jews from certain positions. In the end the doctor is betrayed or abandoned by most of his (non-Jewish) colleagues, who agree to him being charged with ‘obstructing religious observance’. He resigns from his position in protest, is put on trial and ultimately sent to prison.

Icke’s ‘re-imagining’ is set in a private medical institute – presumably somewhere in the UK – that specialises in Alzheimer’s disease. The protagonist is Doctor Ruth Wolff (Juliet Stevenson), the institute’s founder and star physician who also serves on the board of directors. She also happens to be Jewish, and a self-righteous prig.

Somewhat implausibly, she intervenes in another doctor’s case similar to that of the young woman in Schnitzler’s original play; even more implausibly, the family priest (Jamie Parker) barges into the ward without being restrained by anyone else on the staff or hospital security. Wolff refuses to admit him to the patient’s room, on the grounds that the young woman is unconscious, and has given no authorisation for him to do so. They both immediately start yelling at each other; the priest attempts to force his way in; and Wolff appears to lay a hand on his arm (though the production obfuscates what actually happens with a dramatic movement freeze, sound cue and lighting change). Meanwhile a nurse goes in to check on the young woman, and returns with the news that she’s died, presumably in fear and stress because of the commotion.

The next day the priest accuses Wolff of assault (though it’s not exactly clear why); and predicably there’s a social media pile-on. The hospital board turns on Wolff and votes for her to be dismissed from the board and the hospital staff; but not before (in another implausible scene) the young woman’s father (again played by Parker) bursts into the room (again without any intervention by security staff) and strikes Wolff in the face (another dramatic freeze-frame). Again for reasons that are unclear (especially given her ‘by the book’ character) she never subsequently charges him with assault; nor does she sue the hospital board for unfair dismissal.

“Implausibilities pile up” in The Doctor. Pic: Tony Lewis.

The implausibilities continue to pile up after interval. For some reason Wolff agrees to appear on a Fox News-style (but unanimously ‘progressive’) chat show where she’s grilled by a panel of experts who are all caricatures of political correctness. Despite losing her job, however, the charges against her are (without explanation) dismissed. In a final scene of prolonged implausibility, the priest comes to visit her at her home; she lets him in; and they have a civilised chat about it all.

So much for the plot; the writing is even more ham-fisted. The language and tone is unvaryingly monotonous and monological. Icke seems incapable of writing in character; mostly we hear the voice of the author, or straw men and women whose arguments are easily refuted. Real dialogue or nuance is sadly lacking, and sorely needed. Perhaps that’s the point; but in reinforcing it so rigidly, the play seems part of the problem.

The exception is in the scenes between Wolff and Sami (Liv Hill), a young neighbour in the same block of flats. Despite their plot-redundancy, and the unexplained reason for this unlikely relationship, these scenes are surprisingly well written, and demonstrate genuine complexity. A monologue about having sex in the school toilets was the best piece of writing in the show, and certainly the funniest. It almost seemed to be written by someone else – indeed it seemed to come from another play. In a similar though slightly more sentimental vein, the final scene between doctor and priest was at least a relief in that they finally emerged from behind their masks as three-dimensional human beings: dialogue and nuance at last.

In terms of ‘issues’, the complexity of Professor Bernardi is reduced to the overriding theme of ‘identity politics’ – a catch-all that extends from race, culture and religion to gender, sexuality and even gender-identity – with the predictable if somewhat gratuitous inclusion of transgender rights thrown into the mix. This results in a false equivalence (especially dear to cultural conservatives) between all forms of identity politics (other than their own) that assimilates ‘political correctness’ with totalitarianism, ‘radical’ left-wing protest with far-right violence, and (even more preposterously and offensively) uses the ‘slippery-slope’ argument to equate accusations of discrimination or hate-speech with ‘witch-hunts’ and the Holocaust. In the climactic scene of Act One, for example, The Crucible is openly cited, along with the extermination of the Jews; in one rhetorical howler Wolff is described as being ‘crucified’.

At the risk of stating the obvious: privileged white middle-class doctors, academics or journalists (even Jewish ones) aren’t actually being crucified, burnt at the stake or exterminated; whereas racial and other minorities are still being oppressed by physical persecution and material injustice based on racism and other forms of prejudice. Underlying this false equivalence is a confusion between the symbolic and the real that’s arguably symptomatic of contemporary cultural politics in general (on the left as well as on the right). Perhaps it’s even a part of what Icke is railing against. The problem is that in railing against it, he becomes its mirror-image.

Underlying this false equivalence is a confusion between the symbolic and the real that’s arguably symptomatic of contemporary cultural politics in general (on the left as well as on the right).

This problem is amplified by the production, albeit in an interesting way (here a spoiler alert is in order, so skip the rest of this paragraph if you’re ever likely to see the show). I’m referring to the use of reverse-colour and reverse-gender casting, such that virtually every actor except Stevenson is progressively revealed to be playing a character whose racial or gender identity is other than it appears at first sight.

Personally I’ve no argument with inverting racial or gender-based casting. Caryl Churchill does it brilliantly in Cloud Nine, as Genet did before her in The Blacks and (at least potentially and perhaps even implicitly) The Maids. Shakespeare did the same thing, albeit in a more theatrically traditional but all the more subversive way. The same is arguably true of the Greeks, especially Euripides. In all these cases the inversion or subversion of norms is the point of the play.

In the case of The Doctor however I found the device confusing and distracting. Perhaps it was meant to be an ironic reflection on the politics of identity; or perhaps it was intended as an act of (symbolic) colour or gender ‘blindness’ (a metaphor which is indeed ‘blind’ to social and material reality). Whatever the intention, it seemed to commit precisely the sin of political correctness that the play itself condemns.

On a more visceral level, it also gave Stevenson and her character an unfair advantage over everyone else in terms of theatrical and moral integrity, almost as if she were being presented as the only ‘real’ person onstage. Once again, Schnitzler is far more nuanced in his portrayal of the humanly flawed but genuinely persecuted Bernhardi (as was Miller in his characterisation of John Proctor).

In contrast, Icke makes Wolff an emotional cripple, and then tacks on a back-story about a lover who killed themselves after developing Alzheimer’s that supposedly explains her surface coldness and underlying rage, as well as her over-identification with a patient’s right to a peaceful death.

This lack of subtlety extends to the acting, which (like the writing) is mostly one-note and hysterical. There’s a lot of shouting, banging of fists and over-emotionalising. Once again, the exceptions are the scenes between Wolff and Sami, and the final scene between doctor and priest.

Stevenson herself is a riveting actor in terms of razor-sharp intelligence, emotional force, technical precision and sheer stage presence. She also possesses great comic timing, even in otherwise humourless scenes. However even she resorted to shouting from the first scene of the play onwards.

Ultimately The Doctor fails – not just as an adaptation of Professor Bernhardi, but on its own terms – because for all its sound and fury it never leaves the echo chamber of ideas to become a convincing or compelling drama.

The rest of the performances– with the exception of Hill and Parker (at least in his final scene) – were woefully under-par, wooden and two-dimensional. Admittedly this was partly due to the writing and the cross-casting, which many in the cast appeared to be struggling with.

Things weren’t helped by the design. Hildegard Bechtier’s streamlined IKEA-style set featured a concave blond wood-panelled back wall, a long functional table surrounded by benches in matching tones, and a white floor that revolved slowly during various dramatic ‘turning points’. These were accompanied by heavy-handed underscoring (sound design and composition by Tom Gibbons) from a live drummer (Hannah Ledwidge) seated on a platform above the back wall.

All these elements – the curved back wall, the furniture and blocking (with the actors seated around the table in crucial scenes), the use of the revolve, and the live percussion – made it difficult to hear the dialogue, despite the use of radio-mics (it was hard to tell from where I was sitting if the actors were wearing these or if they were hidden on the set – possibly both). The curved back wall in particular seemed to create echo-points within the set that were compounded by the mics, so that the acoustic surrounding the actor’s voices constantly changed as they moved around.

As a result even Stevenson’s remarkable anchoring performance never quite landed for me because I couldn’t always understand what she was saying, even (and perhaps especially) when she was shouting; and the situation was even worse for some of the other actors.

In a sense, this flaw in the design goes to the heart of the problem with the play. Ultimately The Doctor fails – not just as an adaptation of Professor Bernhardi, but on its own terms – because for all its sound and fury it never leaves the echo chamber of ideas to become a convincing or compelling drama.


Scottish playwright Kieran Hurley’s new play Mouthpieceproduced by Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre Company and directed by the company’s previous Artistic Director Orla O’Loughlin – is a much more tightly woven play than The Doctor. It also deals with a more focussed clash of ideas on the battlefield of cultural and identity politics – this time over class rather than race or religion. However once again it ultimately came across as overwrought in conception and overcooked in performance.

Shauna Macdonald and Angus Taylor in Mouthpiece. Pic: Lara Cappelli.

Like Educating Rita, it’s essentially a two-hander about a man and a woman of different ages and class backgrounds who establish a mentor-relationship that becomes a love story – and which founders because of the contradictions between all of these factors, especially class. The obvious precursor to both plays in terms of the drama of ideas is Shaw’s Pygmalion.

The play is set in Edinburgh (as opposed to London or Liverpool in those two plays), and the city is almost a third character, with its own landscape, personality and contradictions. Scenes take place in inner-city cafes, art galleries and theatres, as well as a suburban housing-estate flat and – most memorably – the edge of a crag on a hilltop overlooking the city. All these settings feel convincing, and have the quality of lived experience – like the hospital setting in Professor Bernhardi (as opposed to that of The Doctor).

Libby (Shauna Macdonald) is a playwright in her forties who’s hit a period of artistic and personal crisis and come back to Edinburgh from London after a promising early start to her career hit the doldrums. At the start of the play she appears to be contemplating suicide on the hilltop, but is rescued by Declan (Angus Taylor), an angry young unemployed working-class teenager who’s also a gifted amateur artist and hangs out on the crag to sketch the view.

Libby cultivates a relationship with Declan and encourages his art. She reveals that she has a vested interest in doing so, as she hopes to reinvigorate her career by writing a play based on him called – you guessed it – Mouthpiece. The title is stolen from a drawing of his, depicting his little sister standing on the edge of the cliff with her arms outstretched and her mouth wide open – a drawing which is in turn inspired by seeing one of Bacon’s ‘Screaming Popes’ at the Scottish National Gallery when Libby takes him there on an excursion.

Things get out of hand when Declan’s own life spirals into crisis. Libby attempts to comfort him and an awkward sexual encounter ensues. When she attempts to continue their ‘professional’ relationship while enforcing some kind of emotional distance, and then shows him the ending of the play (which we don’t at this stage get to hear) for approval, he flies into a rage, and abuses her for exploiting him and appropriating his material to write a piece of poverty-porn.

In the final (and most theatrically intriguing) act of the play, Declan shows up at the opening night of Mouthpiece – at the Traverse Theatre, of course – and confronts Libby (from a seat in the actual audience) during the post-show Q&A. (For me this was where a more interesting version of play began, and could have unfolded in its entirety.) Eventually he storms the stage and threatens her at knifepoint in an outburst of toxic aggression. (This was a bit of a stretch for me, and reminded me of similar moments in The Doctor when the playwright’s own hysterical desire for drama seemed to outstrip psychological plausibility on the part of the characters – notwithstanding generic back-stories about anger management or unresolved grief.) A police chase ensues (the play having well and truly jumped the shark for me by this point), culminating in a cliff-hanging final scene. One more draft, please.

A police chase ensues (the play having well and truly jumped the shark for me by this point), culminating in a cliff-hanging final scene. One more draft, please.

Mouthpiece is a more intimate play than The Doctor, and was performed in the relatively small black box of the Odeon Theatre (although a larger venue or more open stage – perhaps more like the Traverse itself – would have been exciting, especially for the final act). Kai Fischer’s basic black two-level set and occasional furniture provided for upstage and downstage scene changes between hill-top, café, flat, art gallery and theatre, although a bare stage would arguably have been even more effective. Lighting (also by Fischer) and sound (designed and composed by Kim Moore) were appropriately minimal.

Unfortunately (as with The Doctor) the performances were unnecessarily ‘big’ (especially for the venue) and involved a lot of shouting, which was understandable on a windswept hilltop but seemed redundant elsewhere (even in the final act). Macdonald frequently got stuck in a register of fragile self-pity, especially in her long monologue in the cafe about being a hard-done-by and misunderstood playwright. Personally, I felt that the play worked best as a satire on well-intentioned but self-absorbed middle-class writers who are unable to relinquish their power and privilege; and there was a lot of comedy in the writing that wasn’t realised onstage.

As the coronavirus is teaching us: all our ideas are ultimately as insubstantial as gossamer when torn asunder by material reality.

Taylor’s performance was much more robust and self-mocking, assisted by Declan’s sometimes hilariously incomprehensible ‘Embra’ dialect. Nevertheless, the character’s sense of social isolation was deeply moving; and his outrage totally understandable (even if his final outburst of rage was unconvincing).

In the end – again like The Doctor despite a fine central performance, Mouthpiece remains trapped by its own ideas, rather than taking flight as a living, breathing organism.

As the coronavirus is teaching us: all our ideas are ultimately as insubstantial as gossamer when torn asunder by material reality.

The Doctor was at the Dunstan Playhouse from February 27 to March 1. Mouthpiece was at the Odeon Theatre from March 6 to 14.

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