This play - a study in anti-Semitism by Arthur Schnitzler and the final offering in the Last Waltz season of neglected early 20th-century drama - is quite a find. At least it is in this vigorous English version by Samuel Adamson, energetically directed by Mark Rosenblatt, artistic director of Dumbfounded Theatre, which is jointly responsible with Oxford Stage Company for such an ambitious exercise in rediscovery.
Written in 1912, but set in turn-of-the-century Vienna, the play begins like a frock-coated version of Surgical Spirit - all medical arrogance and casual references to death and clinical errors. Roger Evans as the student Mr Hochroitzpointer (whose very name is repeated as an unwieldy joke) makes the most of the comedic opportunities. But then the mood changes.
A young woman is dying of sepsis brought on by a back-street abortion. This being a strongly Catholic community (although a majority of the doctors are Jewish), a priest is summoned to administer the last rites. When he arrives, Professor Bernhardi, director of the teaching hospital, refuses him access to the patient on the grounds that she’s in a state of euphoria and would be distressed by the knowledge that she has only moments to live. The young woman dies without making confession and, from that moment, Bernhardi’s career is in jeopardy. The hospital board resigns, patrons withdraw, questions are asked in Parliament, and eventually there’s a court case, which leads to the professor’s imprisonment.
This is a long and wordy play - the action consists mainly of animated debate between gents in black suits and white coats, punctuated by the formal clicking of heels - but, to Rosenblatt’s credit, it’s never less than gripping. He’s well served by the (judiciously cut) script and by the designer Jon Bausor. A tile-floored room does duty as ward ante-room, board room, drawing room and ministerial office with a gauzy curtain briefly drawn across to separate scenes. Nurses, guests and housekeepers bustle in corridors suggested around the periphery.
The acting too, is spot-on, especially Christopher Godwin in the role of Bernhardi. He combines the silken certainty of the arrogant scholar with genuine compassion and a sense of duty. He’s both worldly-wise and innocent - or possibly careless - of the consequences of irritating the Catholic hierarchy, deliberately choosing not to take the easy way out of his predicament, and he’s surprised that his old friend, the politician Flint (a plausible John Stahl), can promise support and behave quite differently when under pressure.
Although he acts from the best motives, there’s a whiff of self-satisfaction about Bernhardi. That the victim of anti-Semitism is flawed, that the rebuffed priest (Jake Harders) has a shifting understanding of the rights and wrongs of the death-bed incident, that self-serving politics becomes entangled with religious commitment ensures that this is a credible and lively debate: character has not been sacrificed to ideas.
After the interval, sophisticated political satire replaces the verbal blood-and-guts. How relevant it all seems when Flint, explaining his betrayal, blithely announces: “It’s about time you understood that there are higher things in public life than ‘keeping your word’ as you define it, Bernhardi.” And how familiar too is the flexing of religious muscle on the political scene.
The ending seems strangely abrupt. Bernhardi, now a reluctant celebrity facing a second trial, still can’t practise. Nothing is as simple as good triumphing over evil. And the political future looks bleak.
- Heather Neill