Professor Bernhardi

Arthur Schnitzler, in a new version by Samuel Adamson
Arcola Theatre
(2005)

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In describing Professor Bernhardi as "The Dreyfus of the hospitals" one of his colleagues nicely encapsulates the themes of this play by a writer (in)famous for La Ronde, which more recently became The Blue Room.

If you were Jewish in 1900, Vienna was a rather confusing place to be. You might find yourself in high office but just as easily, you could be subjected to overt anti-Semitism prefiguring events 30-40 years later.

The gangling Professor Bernhardi (played by Christopher Godwin) is the distinguished head of a medical institute who unthinkingly, if rather rudely, puts a dying patient's interests ahead of those of a rather bumptious priest representing the Catholic Church. Putting humanity ahead of diplomacy and politicking has rarely been a good idea in any society and fin de siècle Vienna was apparently no exception.

In no time at all, this good if overly proud man is on a slippery slope that leads to resignation from the institute's board, then from his job and finally, to two months in jail.

On his release, and rather too conveniently to be entirely believable, the Professor wins over almost all of his accusers, so that by the end of two-and-half hours, he has become a hero with a happy ending.

Director Mark Rosenblatt could soon be claiming the mantle of Sam Walters. He seems to delight in discovering and reviving forgotten gems and Professor Bernhardi is well worth seeing. Its tone is reminiscent of George Bernard Shaw or possibly Harley Granville Barker's Waste.

Early on, the scene is set by members of a large cast with the help of the Jon Bousor's elaborate set and costumes; with some Erik Satie piano. Soon, the medical establishment and also the political one divide along broadly racial lines.

It is inevitable that the critics. led by the unpleasant Professor Ebenwald (Dale Rapley) and the self-seeking minister of education and cultural affairs Dr Flint (played by John Stahl) and assisted by Roger Evans' ludicrously-named Mr Hochroitzpointner will inflict damage as Professor Bernhardi refuses to succumb to blackmail.

It is cheering when the good guys begin to fight back, led by Professor Pflugfelder (John Stahl again in far more vibrant mood). As the play moves towards its close, there is a series of head-to-head debates in which the playwright is able to develop his ideas very successfully.

Ultimately, this is a fascinating discursive piece that addresses serious political issues in a light manner. If it is anything to go by, Rosenblatt's Last Waltz Season should prove a great success.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher