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London Theatre Reviews

WITCH HUNT

By CLAIRE ALLFREE

Robert Icke's swansong production for the Almeida does not disappoint, with Juliet Stevenson leading an excellent cast.

Robert Icke is only 32, but it's a sign of how extraordinary an impact he has had on British theatre that his decision to depart the Almeida for pastures new, almost certainly in Europe, has been greeted with such deep regret. Both with Headlong and during his six-year stint as an associate at the Almeida he has cut a dashing swathe through a fair amount of the western canon, rebooting classics from Ibsen's Wild Duck to George Orwell's 1984 via his astonishing modern update of The Oresteia with such distinctive verve and clarity he's as good as earned the right to become his own adjective. How very Ickian we might be saying of the directors who emerge in his wake, although of course we would also much rather still have the real thing.
 
His swansong production for the Almeida – a loose reworking of Arthur Schnitzler's 1912 drama Professor Bernhardi – retains many classic Icke hallmarks, not least the presence of Juliet Stevenson, who has worked with Icke twice before. She plays Ruth Wolff, the formidable founder and director of a prestigious dementia institute that for reasons left annoyingly unexplained has been treating a 14-year-old girl dying from a botched home abortion. Wolff is also Jewish, as are several of the doctors, including many women, whom she has promoted within the Institute. Her apparent cultural and gender favouritism will come to be used against her when, following her decision that it would not be in the teenager's best interests to allow access during her final moments to a Catholic priest who wants to deliver the last rites, Wolff becomes the victim of a social-media-generated witch hunt.
 
On a clean, clinical set that revolves at tectonic pace, Icke stretches out the action, as is his custom, to almost three hours. Entire governments could come and go while an Icke production continues in its leisurely way, and British politics being what it is at present, that's not so far fetched a suggestion. Yet our attention is hooked throughout thanks to the verbal cut and thrust of the mounting arguments, which include the struggle for primacy between medical opinion and religious ritual, and accusations and counter-accusations of cultural intolerance and anti-Semitism, as pressure builds from within and without on Wolff to resign.
 
Stevenson sympathetically presents Wolff as a flawed and arrogant woman who prides herself on defining herself only as a doctor rather than, say, a Jewish woman, and who believes the only thing about her that matters is her medical opinion and expertise. Alas, this is no defence at all on the frontline of today's raging identity wars, where who you are, and what prejudice you might therefore have suffered, is more significant than whatever you might have achieved. Wolff, who is a stickler for clarity of thought and language, who always chooses her words with meticulous care, is staggered when she is then accused of racism. As indeed initially is the audience. For the Catholic priest, played by the white actor Paul Higgins, is in fact black. (It gradually transpires that most of the cast members are also playing characters who have a different gender and race.) It's a brilliant way of implicating the audience alongside Wolff.
 
It's a wrenching evening as well as a stimulating one, Stevenson just heartbreaking as Wolff's rigorously shored-up carapace falls away along with her identity as a doctor. Icke's excellent cast includes Ria Zmitrowicz as a transgender teenager who Wolff has befriended, and then later unthinkingly betrays, and Joy Richardson as her lover Charlie, who died many years previously from dementia and from whose death Wolff has never fully recovered. But it's Stevenson's evening. Oh, and Icke's, of course. How we'll miss him.