Juliet Stevenson stars in this “loose adaptation” of Arthur Schnitzler’s play Professor Bernhardi. The time is the present, in the “digital age”. The place is a private institute specialising in the study of dementia. The hospital director, the professor, is still a Jew, but now a woman, too.
Robert Icke not only plays with the text of this ethical drama, but with audience perceptions as well: gender and race-blind casting means we are seeing one reality but being told of another: the priest who is excluded from his dying patient is black, but played by a white actor; the junior doctor is a man, but played by a woman.
The Doctor is a clever and intense piece of drama which considers issues of medical ethics, religious observance and tolerance, gender, sexuality, unconscious bias, and the power of language.
Realities are slowly revealed as the play progresses, and the social media hysteria builds, all from one action of a medical practitioner believing she should act in the best interests of her patient (a teenage girl brought in with sepsis, a child of Catholic parents).
There are perhaps a tad too many reveals for an audience to process, but a scene where the Doctor’s house is terrorised is well done, the freeze framing of two acts of violence is effective, and the moment she betrays her young friend in a television debate is shocking.
Hildegard Bechtler has created a simple set of a long table and benches which occasionally revolves as arguments are thrashed out. This serves as a meeting room in the hospital, the Doctor’s kitchen, a TV studio.
Above the set is suspended a space for drummer Hannah Ledwidge, who provides percussive accompaniment throughout, sometimes between scenes, sometimes underscoring snatches of dialogue.
There are moments of humour within the intense scenes, scenes which gain in their emotional impact as the Doctor loses her status, power, influence and pride. As she is told in act two, “What is a leader without followers? Just an old woman.”
The play feels very current in its new form with discussions of antisemitism, politics, gender fluidity, abortion, political correctness, and the faults which exist on all sides – whether white privilege or not.
It is interesting that though a black woman (a touching performance from Joy Richardson) plays the Doctor’s partner, Charlie, their gender or race is never discussed.
Aside from Stevenson’s outstanding depiction of a woman slowly slipping down a precipice, good performances come from Naomi Wirther as the Doctor’s repellent male and Christian deputy, Paul Higgins as the priest, and Ria Zmitrowicz as the teenager who sees her neighbour’s kitchen as a safe space.
The Doctor continues at Islington’s Almeida Theatre, but is sold out for the rest of its run. Although it runs at close to three hours, it doesn’t waste a moment.
Photo credit Manuel Harlan.