The Doctor, Almeida theatre: chilling power from Juliet Stevenson
There’s been no shortage of productions over the past couple of years that have taken plays with political themes and brought them up to date, to show how apt they still are in the divided era of Brexit. It’s not an easy task, and one that can sometimes result in a trite or “on the nose” final product. But The Doctor, Robert Icke’s farewell production as associate director of the Almeida theatre, succeeds where many others have failed.
A very loose adaptation of Professor Bernhardi (1912), by the Austrian playwright and doctor Arthur Schnitzler, The Doctor’s plot centres around the same single incident as the original. A Jewish doctor denies a Catholic priest access to a patient who is dying of sepsis following a botched abortion. In Icke’s version, the incident causes a press and social media storm, an online petition and a TV debate, all while tensions between the conflicted staff inside the elite, private hospital edge closer and closer to boiling point.
This sense of spiralling chaos is aided by a very gently rotating stage, which as well as offering the audience a view of each character stating their piece on the boardroom-like set, gives rise to a general sense of unease.
Icke’s adaptation is outstanding in its ability to put across the weight and magnitude of events that can seem minute at first glance. At one crucial point, where the doctor lays a hand on the priest, the actors freeze and skip forward a few seconds, so as the debate rages on over what has just taken place, the audience is as confused as the characters.
Juliet Stevenson is a force to be reckoned with as the brilliant if pedantic doctor, who is idealistic to a fault, as it turns out. Stevenson delivers her lines with chilling power, building a character that comes to represent a sort of unflinching integrity. As the play goes on, though, and she is forced to fight battles several fronts, her single-mindedness is taken to task. “I don’t go in for groups,” she says repeatedly. But the characters surrounding her refuse to let her escape them. The rest of the cast, especially Naomi Wirthner playing a misogynistic male doctor at the hospital, are also impressive.
Icke’s gender- and race-blind casting has an unusual effect. In a play where gender and race have such a central role, it feels strange to force each character to at some point state their race and gender, or have it be made clear by others. The audience is left paying catch-up, but that seems to be the point – it helps to highlight each player’s identity in a concrete way and make us reflect on our own assumptions. The Doctor becomes not only a play about identity, but one that encompasses questions of character, religion, medical ethics, politics, loyalty and power in an intensely moving package.
The Doctor will be performing at the Almeida Theatre until 28 September. Tickets here.