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David Benedict: Identity politics are stirring up division. Someone call The Doctor

Unlike musicals, so-called straight dramas don’t do showstoppers. Even a speech as famous as “To be or not to be” won’t elicit a thrill so intense that audiences roar their approval. But while no one leapt up yelling “Encore” at the non-press-night performance of Robert Icke [1]’s revelatory Almeida production The Doctor [2] I saw, you could feel the audience being stopped in its tracks.

Icke has vigorously and, crucially, rigorously adapted and updated Arthur Schnitzler’s 1921 play Professor Bernhardi. Both the original and Icke’s revamp are like a refocused variant on Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People. In fraught circumstances between a patient and a priest, tension escalates into a multi-pronged attack, with the flames of identity politics fanned by public opinion.

As the stakes rocket, a doctor rises furiously to the defence of the senior clinician in the line of fire. “If we let them drag in biography, if doctors’ identities are put on the table, then let’s be clear what that means, because it’s Jewish doctors for Jewish patients and fat doctors for fat patients and ‘should you perform the surgery if you haven’t undergone it yourself?’ ”

Robert Icke’s new play eviscerates hitherto-convincing arguments

That lethally delivered speech eviscerates carefully laid-out arguments that, to that point, have felt not just understandable but convincing. You can almost hear minds being recalibrated.

That moment, one of several throughout, benefits from accidental timing. Icke’s play opened the same week that the so-called “Jewface” row erupted via an open letter to The Stage. Icke’s play is, of course, not an intended riposte but it certainly reads as a shockingly cogent response.

Jewish theatremakers speak out against cultural appropriation on stage – your views, August 22 [3]

The whole debate reminded me of a conversation I had a couple of years ago with an actor friend who, like me, is Jewish. Surprised by a photo of me in my 20s when I was a relatively new, often unemployed, actor, he cried: “You’ve de-Jewed!” Looking at it through his eyes, I saw his point. I hadn’t been aware at the time that I “looked Jewish”, so any change in my appearance was accidental. But with hindsight I see that I certainly did look more so than I do now.

Yet at the time the photograph was taken, I was less interested in my (atheist) Judiasm than I was in my identity as a gay man. Indeed, a couple of years earlier, in an example of the nearest we got to identity politics in the early 1980s, I could routinely be found sporting a badge announcing: “How dare you presume I’m heterosexual?”

To be fair, very few did. Yet the point is that revealing either or both my potentially hidden sexual identity and/or my Jewish cultural inheritance (I’m only here because my mother, as a child, escaped Nuremberg in 1939) was a choice: if I wanted to, I could ‘pass’ as straight and/or non-Jewish.

Which is where casting comes in. We know, thanks to the “Jewface” debate, that none of the cast of Falsettos is Jewish. But the entire business of acting means that, in theory, they can appear to be so. That said, in the spirit of full disclosure, not all of the cast do – some of the accents and rhythms are off. The question of actors passing (or not) is similar to gay actors successfully playing straight and vice versa, a subject I know about since, in a previous working life, I was artistic director of the national lesbian and gay theatre company Gay Sweatshop.

Employment law in the 1980s and 1990s was different, so we were openly looking for lesbian or gay actors (acronyms around LGBT+ were not yet coined). Yet even when we hired straight actors for plays that placed lesbians and gays centre-stage, the lesbian and gay creative team surrounding them ensured informed, truthful representation. Without such lived experience central to a rehearsal room, even the most well-intentioned production can stand accused of secondhand best guessing.

Despite the muddled argument of the original “Jewface” letter, that would seem to me to be the point they were attempting to make. But I return to The Doctor. Icke blows the debate out of the water not just by what his text says but, crucially, by his casting. Throughout, carefully planted bombs go off in the heads of the audience as the dramatic effects of his gender-blind and colour-blind casting are revealed.

He couldn’t be more timely. As one character puts it: “If we do not stem the bleed of this biographical nonsense it will drown us.” Or, as Laurence Olivier allegedly said to Dustin Hoffman on the set of Marathon Man when, so the story goes, Hoffman stayed up for three nights to be in line with his character: “Try acting.”

Read David Benedict’s columns every Wednesday at thestage.co.uk/author/david-benedict [4]