The Doctor, created by writer/director Robert Icke, is a curious hybrid of a play.
It works as an homage to Professor Bernhardi, a 1912 comedy/drama by Austrian dramatist Arthur Schnitzler, which Icke updates and imbues with the punishing wail of social media, the indignation of interest groups, the punch-drunk power of identity politics, and questions of choice regarding abortion rights and gender fluidity.
Whichever side you’re on, you’re guaranteed to deeply offend someone, who will then set about making your life a living hell.
The Doctor is also reminiscent of Henrik Ibsen’s 19th Century morality tale, An Enemy of the People, in which an entire community turns against a highly-principled Norwegian doctor for discovering contamination in the town’s water supply. Better to shoot the messenger, than to confront the political power base that allows life-threatening conditions to exist.
So what does all this have to do with The Doctor? An awful lot, because its themes borrow heavily from the above-mentioned dramatists but its power may lie elsewhere.
Dr Ruth Wolff (Juliet Stevenson) is a White Jewish Executive Director of the Elisabeth Institute, a medical centre in financial difficulty. We learn within seconds of the opening scene that she is viewed as headstrong, overworked and unyielding, and not particularly liked by some of her colleagues. As hospital head, she denies a colleague’s request to tend to a 14-year-old girl who is dying from a botched abortion attempt, preferring to manage the teenager’s death herself to ensure it is a peaceful one.
This concept of peace is readily smashed when a Black Catholic priest (played by White actor John Mackay) confronts Wolff, stating he’s been instructed by the teenager’s parents to administer the Last Rites and demands access to the girl’s hospital room. Wolff refuses on the grounds she’s not received any instruction from the girl’s parents who are out of the country, cannot be sure the priest is who he says he is, and does not want the girl to realise she is so close to death.
A mighty clash of intentions takes place. According to the Catholic priest, the teenager will die in sin and suffer the eternal flames of hell if the Last Rites are not administered. His laborious argument bears no weight with Dr Wolff, whose authority overrides the power of Catholic doctrine. The hard shoulder of medical intervention prevails and the girl dies before the priest can reach her.
The incident might have gone unnoticed if not for the priest recording his conversation with Dr Wolff, a couple of the doctor’s Catholic colleagues, and a raucous social media response that demands Dr Wolff’s resignation.
The Doctor then flirts outrageously with a myriad of social issues already mentioned that have become the focal point of all theatre reviews published thus far. However, theatre-goers cognisant of current events won’t find anything new here but for a clever mishmash of social disparities and divisions, albeit served up as a mesmerising political feast.
Especially noted in this feast are Copley’s (Chris Osikanlu Coloquhoun) assessment of public outcry and his defence of Dr Wolff; the tactile manipulations of Cyprian (Doña Croll) designed to humiliate the doctor during a TV ‘Stalinist-type show trial’; and the live drum soundtrack with Hannah Ledwidge hovering overhead. It might be the best drum-bash accompaniment ever to grace a London stage.
What will knock you sideways, however, are the scenes between Dr Wolff and schoolgirl Sami (Matilda Tucker) which move towards something fresh and unexpected in the script. The exchanges between Wolff and her young neighbour are poignant, poetic, tragic, plumb the depths of sadness and despair, and convey the raw, excoriating essence of loss. Stevenson delivers such an acutely personal relationship to it that I felt I’d been punched in the gut.
But as powerful as Stevenson is as Ruth Wolff, line for line Matilda Tucker matches her. I won’t reveal what the two females discuss. To earn this experience, you must see the somewhat flawed, but truly magnificent The Doctor.
Review by Loretta Monaco
The Doctor, by Robert Icke, very freely adapted from Professor Bernhardi by Arthur Schnitzler, has been critically lauded since it opened at the Almeida in August 2019, with Juliet Stevenson in the title role. This is their third collaboration together to transfer to the West End, previous ones being Mary Stuart in 2018 and Oresteia in 2015.
The play headlined the Adelaide Festival in 2020, before it was due to transfer to the West End. This was delayed until 2022 due to the outbreak of Covid-19.
In a divisive time, in a divided nation, a society takes sides.
The latest smash-hit by “Britain’s best director” (Telegraph) is a “provocative, wonderfully upsetting” (Independent) whirlwind of gender, race and questions about identity, “one of the peaks of the theatrical year” (Guardian) and a “devastating play for today” (Financial Times).
The production has designs by Hildegard Bechtler, lighting by Natasha Chivers, sound and composition by Tom Gibbons and casting by Julia Horan CDG.
Joining the previously announced, Juliet Stevenson, and returning to the production are Christopher Osikanlu Colquhoun (The Lion King), Mariah Louca (Best Of Enemies), Daniel Rabin (King Lear), Naomi Wirthner (An Evening At The Talkhouse) and Hannah Ledwidge on drums.
New cast members include Doña Croll (The Heresy of Love), Juliet Garricks (100 Paintings), Preeya Kalidas (Everybody’s Talking About Jamie), John Mackay (Oresteia), Matilda Tucker (The Snow Queen) and Sabrina Wu.
Duke of York’s Theatre
104 St Martin’s Lane, London WC2N 4BG
29 Sep 2022 – 11 Dec 2022