Fourteen years after Zola’s angry intervention in the Dreyfus affair, Schnitzler wrote this tongue-in-cheek satire on anti-Semitism in Viennese political and professional circles.
In the interests of a dying patient Jewish doctor, Professor Bernhardi, prevents a Catholic priest from administering the last rites to a girl who is blissfully unaware of her imminent death. The upshot is a witch-hunt that sets medical etiquette against religious orthodoxy, the Christian establishment against Jews, creates a funding crisis for the teaching hospital and even has Bernhardi convicted and banged up for ‘agitating the Catholic religion’.
In other hands this could make for heavy-going melodrama. But thanks to Schnitzler’s witty script in a sparkling new version by Samuel Adamson, the evening is a gripping Shavian-style debate in which, beyond passions and the power struggle, factional interests seek career advantage, while the ever-buoyant Bernhardi simply wants to get on with his job of healing the sick.
Third and best of The Last Waltz season at the Arcola, Mark Rosenblatt’s sumptuous staging assembles a powerful 13-strong cast led by Christopher Godwin as a Bernhardi of gentle grace, charm, wit and twinkle-eyed optimism.
His superb central performance is brilliantly supported by John Stahl doubling as an outspoken medic of James Robertson Justice dimensions and a devious Austrian minister of cultural affairs. There are also fine contributions from Dale Rapley as Bernhardi’s self-serving rival, Roger Evans as a sly, heel-clicking medical student with a duelling scar and Mariah Gale eye-catching as a nurse giving false witness.