I catch Mark Rosenblatt the morning after the opening night party of his latest directorial venture, Professor Bernhardi by Arthur Schnitzler, newly translated and adapted by Samuel Adamson for the Oxford Stage Company in association with Dumbfounded Theatre. Rosenblatt is Artistic Director of Dumbfounded, and has co-produced a trilogy of plays for the Oxford St age Company's The Last Waltz season. All three plays are thematically linked; they are each written in the opening years of the twentieth century, each by a European Jewish playwright and each respond to the social pressures of an anti-Semitism which had yet to manifest itself in overt and uncontrollable genocide. The Europe of Vienna, Munich and Berlin, of Schnitzler, Wedekind and Hauptmann, is a place of high tension and the thinnest veneer of racial tolerance. A middle Europe an world in which Jewish oppression and dislike was an ever-active part of the social norm. A world in which successful Jewish professionals might be accepted into affluent society, but hardly welcomed with open arms. These are the issues that The Last Waltz season addresses and these are the issues at the heart of Rosenblatt's version of Bernhardi.
Professor Bernhardi concerns a Jewish doctor in 1900 Vienna. This Jewish doctor prevents a Catholic priest from absolving a dying patient. The witchhunt that follows highlights the prejudices that lurk beneath the surface of Vienne se society. Schnitzler wrote this play in 1912, only two years before the Habsburg Empire was embroiled alongside Germany in the Great War. From this Great War, and the scandalous treatment of the German nation which suffered draconian post-war reparation demands, was to emerge the National Socialist Party, led by the fanatical army corporal, Adolf Hitler. Schnitzler's sage-like evocation of anti-Semitic Vienna may pre-empt the horrors that are to come, but as evidence that the seeds for the Holocaust were firmly sown in pre-war Europe, Bernhardi is invaluable and fearful.
Rosenblatt assures me, however, that despite the dark history and our justifiably anachronistic horror at the play's contents, it is an "incredibly funny comedy -- a huge play that deals with lots of issues in a really thrilling way." "The play was banned in 1918 -- you couldn't say these sorts of things at the time. It is moving that here is a writer who loves the culture he lives in -- has a sense of belonging to the city and yet is also estranged by it. The very same people he talks to on a daily basis make him feel schizophrenic. As a Viennese he is an insider, as a Jew he is an outsider." Rosenblatt is sure, however, that Schnitzler's own experiences as the son of a Jewish doctor in Vienna , mixing in the same social circles as Freud, Mahler and Klimt, provides a unique authenticity to this huge play.
Huge it obviously is, with an ensemble of sixteen actors overall, fourteen of whom are in Bernhardi alone; Rosenblatt admits putting on this trilogy of plays was a '"slightly crazy idea," at least logistically. "The hardest party of the rehearsal process was scheduling where any actor was at any one time. We had an aggregate of two and a half weeks rehearsal per show, with two proper rehearsal rooms and a coffee room to rehearse all three plays."
The logistics of this rehearsal process, that Rosenblatt admits closely mirrors "the old-fashioned repertory system," was the principal hurdle to overcome. "The schedule required that as a director I was incredibly prepared -- preparation was everything, and it really put the onus of responsibility on everyone, especially the actors." Preparation for such a venture is obviously the answer, whether the learning of lines or the outline of a set or just the logistical nightmare of having the right actors available for the right scene when they are rehearsing two other plays. "Directors are often guilty of having too much time -- of working on the hoof. I didn't have that luxury -- I had to work, we all had to work at an incredible pace in a very limited time." Rosenblatt admits that on the very afternoon of the opening night the cast and himself were re-rehearsing and adjusting a vital scene; "It was the mother of all rehearsal schedules -- but it worked!"
Rosenblatt is open about his rehearsal technique, or lack of it. "I don't subscribe to any particular process -- I direct intuitively, adjusting to each play as I find it. With this rehearsal schedule there was no time for wanking around -- of exploring pointless avenues. We had to get through the read-thru and have the play up on its feet."
Professor Bernhardi is definitely worth seeing, if only for a glimpse of "a vanished world, a vanished period in time." Rosenblatt energetically enthuses over the size and quality of the production: "It's a big show with lots of actors of a very high calibre indeed -- the sort of calibre that theatre has recently failed to attract." According to Rosenblatt, Bernhardi is "an engrossing, though-provoking and funny play -- treat yourself to the politics and spin of a lost world -- a slice of time that you can dip into." It is exciting to find such neglected and lesser-known European works translated for the British stage; young directors like Rosenblatt are forging the way for us. The Last Waltz season, if commitment and energy are anything to go by, must be of interest to all who recognize a Europe an dimension to our dramatic history. I wish them well.
Kevin Quarmby © 2005