The Doctor | Almeida TheatrePhotos – Tony Lewis

What a theatrical tour de force The Doctor is! You might not think that the ethics of the Hippocratic oath would provide a stimulating plot for the theatre, but the way Robert Icke’s drama interweaves this with all kinds of race, gender, and class prejudices makes this work a classic document of contemporary England.

It is based on a play produced in 1900 in Vienna, by Arthur Schnitzler, called Professor Bernhardi, which deals with similar issuesIcke has “re-imagined” this work by transposing it to 21st century London, into a world where internet blogs can destroy a career in a matter of days. The protagonist, an eminent Jewish woman doctor, makes a call on whether a priest should be allowed to give final absolution to a dying patient. It’s the call dictated by procedure and also by her professional ethics, but it’s nonetheless the wrong call. We see her hounded onto resignation from her post as the head of a prestigious private hospital; we see her grilled by a Q&A-style TV program; and we see her after the medical tribunal has stripped her of the right to practice at all.

Still doesn’t really sound fun? Well, perhaps not. What brought this all to life was the complexity of responses to this situation, from within the hospital, from the relatives of the patient, and from the “experts” on the Q&A forum. With every character, with the possible exception of the priest, we saw people taking perfectly reasonable positions, and then we saw through the veil of a reasonable person (persona?) to the twisted, prejudiced, egotistical backdrop to those perfectly reasonable opinions. What a paradigm of English society! (Though when I said that to a member of the audience she soberly replied – no, just a paradigm of humanity.)

The complexity of response to the Doctor’s decision and its consequences involved, as I mentioned, the baring of prejudices. These were commented on with irony which was sometimes biting by having black people play both black and white ones, and vice versa, and having male actors play both male and female characters, and vice versa. This pointed up the rank stupidity of these (and, by extension, any) prejudices, which stood out in great contrast with the intelligent, carefully thought-out, and reasoned positions taken by most of the characters.

Hildegard Bechtler’s sets are a model of simplicity – a long table and chairs which does duty both for the meetings in the hospital and the Q&A session. There are some simple but deeply effective pieces of theatre in Icke’s production, the most telling being the moment when the Doctor takes off her doctor’s white coat. It is as if she takes off her carapace, her protective armour, her whole ego, and we begin to see the defenceless, incapable self that is behind the fundamentalist, authoritarian persona we have so far seen (with “crystal clarity”, to quote her). Juliet Stevenson plays the role, and her performance is stellar, quite properly a standout among a cast without a weak link.

It’s a troubling play, which asks many troubling ethical questions, and even the question of whether ethical questions are worth answering. But it is a superb piece of theatre.

2020 Adelaide Festival
The Doctor
Almeida Theatre

Venue: Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre | King William Street, Adelaide SA
Dates: 27 Feb – 8 Mar 2020



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