Adapted from Arthur Schnitzler’s Professor Bernhardi (Vienna 1912) Robert Icke’s The Doctor thrusts twenty-first century identity politics to the front of the stage when a secular, Jewish consultant makes a controversial decision concerning her Catholic patient’s last moments. The audience has to keep up as the play gallops through concepts of cultural, biological and historical identity and who is accountable when these clash. Fortunately, helped along by Juliette Stevenson’s superb leading performance, Icke’s rewrite is gripping.
The doctor in question (Stevenson), is an intelligent, high-achieving consultant at the top of her game. She takes a compassionate-but-sensible approach to her work. When faced with the last hours of a young person’s life, she makes a choice that brings her world crashing down. Sympathetic to the child’s fear of impending death, she rejects the parents’ wish for a priest to administer the last rites. This decision leads to heightened emotions as religious, political and cultural beliefs explode and implode across the hospital into the public realm.
Passions and convictions are underlined by the personal make-up of all involved, not least by the doctor who is a defiant but private lesbian. She justifies shielding her relationship from public knowledge. “I’m proud of you,” she reassures her partner. “I know. But nobody else does,” her partner (Joy Richardson) points out. Then, she is astonished to find her Jewish identity held to account as much as her atheism. The predominance of Jewish consultants in her team gives rise to anti-Semitic insinuations regarding cronyism.
Original review: Almeida production August 2019
Adaption and Direction Robert Icke; Cast includes: Oliver Alvin-Wilson, Nathalie Armin, Paul Higgins, Mariah Louca, Pamela Nomvete, Daniel Rabin, Joy Richardson (left), Kirsty Rider, Juliet Stevenson (centre), Naomi Wirthner, Ria Zmitrowic (Photos Manuel Harlan )
Her identity, which she believes irrelevant to the decision she made, is brought before a panel of identity experts. She is asked to justify her actions and words. A black woman challenges her assertion that “words are only words”, by pushing her to say “that word”. She cannot.
Icke further compounds the question of identity and accountability by (some) casting of women as men, whites as blacks and gentiles as Jews. There is a strange disconnect to a character’s words as she/he voices outrage or righteousness. The ploy is almost ridiculous but certainly effective.
This is a play which battles on in ever increasing crescendos, with the clever use of an on-stage drummer’s searching rifts and climatic beats.
Icke takes up Schnitzler’s mantel. Schnitzler described himself as “a Jew, an Austrian, a German” as well as a “doctor-writer”. In doing so, Icke pushes the audience beyond the moral dilemma of a secular and religious approach to dying, to acknowledging the complexities of being human (now that we can all claim a part).
Starts 20 April, Ends 11 July 2020
Duke of York's Theatre
104 St Martin's Ln, London WC2N 4BG