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The Doctor at the Duke of York’s Theatre, London

It’s extraordinary, though on reflection perhaps ultimately unsurprising, how much time the likes of Professor Ruth Wolff (Juliet Stevenson), the doctor of the show’s title, spends during the working day doing things that aren’t medical procedures or patient consultations. It’s probably worth pointing out that the events that transpire in this play aren’t exactly those of a typical week. Inspired by Professor Bernardi, a play by Arthur Schnitzler (1862-1931), the major elements of the storyline remain, and are indeed taken several steps further.

Juliet Garricks (Charlie) and Juliet Stevenson (Ruth Wolff) - The Doctor - Photo Credit Manuel Harlan.
Juliet Garricks (Charlie) and Juliet Stevenson (Ruth Wolff) – The Doctor – Photo Credit Manuel Harlan.

A Catholic priest (John Mackay) arrives at the institute led by Wolff, but is denied access to a dying patient on the grounds that the patient in question, a 14-year-old girl, hasn’t actually called for a priest. Fair enough, at least at face value – even if the girl’s parents are parishioners. But (of course, there’s a ‘but’), according to the priest, because the patient didn’t have the last rites administered, she is in Hell (not Purgatory: without giving everything away, the girl has a past). In effect, the doctor put her there, and in the various arguments and counterarguments that ensue, it becomes clear that the professional medical opinion held that the child wasn’t going to make a recovery in any event.

There’s a lot crammed into a sprawling storyline. Sami (Matilda Tucker), is a frequent visitor to Wolff’s house, though this wasn’t immediately clear, at least not to me, until some way into the second half. But their musings provide a window into the professor’s home life, as do appearances by Charlie (Juliet Garricks), Wolff’s partner. At work, meanwhile, there are, as one might expect in a large organisation, a plethora of different opinions on, well, everything – achieving a unanimous verdict on anything would be an unusual occurrence, somewhat at odds with Wolff’s belief in the certainty of medical science.

The production seems to want to respond to the idea that only certain types of actors should be permitted to play certain types of characters, by refuting it, boldly. I once jested that the way things are going, an actor might be expected to actually have been beheaded before being permitted to portray Anne Boleyn on stage. Here, there are cases of women playing men. Mackay, a white actor, plays a black priest who is, in the opinion of some, a victim of racism. Wolff maintains that had the priest been white she would have treated him the same.

It’s all a little confusing, and arguably unnecessarily so, though the production gloriously goes beyond merely proving actors can play characters vastly different from their own lived experiences. A television debate (yes, really) seeks to determine what role identity politics effectively plays in a world where everyone is supposed to be treated equally regardless of personal characteristics.

Deep, thoughtful and intense, there’s sometimes so much shouting going on that one wonders if this is a play or a soap opera. A junior doctor (Sabrina Wu) is treated appallingly by senior staff, and I suspect, portrayed accurately – tersely instructed to do this, do that, (insert expletive) off, shut up (although they weren’t even saying anything), and so on. And then there’s a drummer, Hannah Ledwidge, positioned high up at the back of the stage, adding to the dramatic tension with an always-appropriate beat. Timing is as crucial in this production as it is in a briskly-paced comedy, and for a play that stretches to almost three hours (there is, thankfully, an interval), it does very well to maintain interest throughout whilst grappling with some very searching issues.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omawneg

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.

The Doctor
Duke of York’s Theatre
104 St Martin’s Lane, London WC2N 4BG
29 Sep 2022 – 11 Dec 2022

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