FringeReview UK 2019
Very freely adapted and directed by Robert Icke, The Doctor is designed by Hildegard Bechtler, lit by Natasha Chivers, with Tom Gibbons’ composition and sound design (additional composition by Hannah Ledwidge) with Deborah Andrews Associate Costume Designer – supervised by Megan Doyle. Resident Director’s TD Moyo.
Robert Icke’s often hit alchemical gold in his treatments of classic and other texts. Now in his swansong The Doctor – based more closely than ‘very freely adapted’ suggests on Arthur Schnitzler’s 1912 masterpiece Professor Bernhardi he produces a two-edged scalpel.
One’s along the fissure of medical authority and arrogance in the figure of Juliet Stevenson’s eponymous doctor Professor Ruth Wolff (‘double-fs’ she defiantly reminds us, always precise, possibly defiant in her grammar). The other traces the opening wound of religion, still Catholic vs Jewish.
There’s a very strong case for letting the original speak. This is Hitler’s Vienna: the start of the holocaust lies 20 years ahead and Schnitzler’s portrayal of reeking anti-Semitism is faithfully transposed by Icke. The original’s prescience is chilling, frighteningly so. What Icke scrupulously manages though is to transpose these forebodings to the new rise in fundamentalism and anti-Semitism. Icke frightens us again.
Wolff’s dilemma is medical, and humanist: not letting in a priest to administer last rites to a Catholic girl who’s dying of self-administered abortion, but is in a quasi—euphoric state. The priest would scare her into death. Wolff refuses him. She touches his shoulder, and it’s claimed that’s assault – not least by Daniel Rabin’s Dr Murphy, her hostile junior, however other colleagues defend her. And Murphy’s not alone in turning on her. To makes things more intense, the priest’s black as is Murphy. And we’re reminded much later Wolff’s used the word ‘uppity’.
Stakes are high. Wolff wishes to appoint a first-rate consultant who happens to be Jewish to replace a dying Catholic – one of the few in this world-class Elizabeth Institute Wolff founded, and which might them the win Nobel Prize if merit prevails. The optics, her Catholic colleague, antagonist Roger Hardiman (Naomi Wirthner) reminds her, are bad. Virtually no Catholics, or men. White Jewish women. Appoint the inferior male Catholic instead and growing uproar will subside, fuelled by anti-Semitism. In Stevenson’s ‘crystal clear’ logic – a phrase she repeats over and over -, this is non-negotiable. Wolff has no bedside manner with colleagues or the public. She refuses and Hardiman starts undermining her.
Wolff in Stevenson’s blisteringly remorseless honest portrayal is indeed crystal clear, but crystals have flaws. Wolff’s include lack of compromise and faceting the human or emotional: it’s beyond her permission, indeed her imagination. Stevenson invests Wolff with all the sympathy of her integrity and wonderful put-downs – especially when riled – of the Catholic church in its insistence on letting the child die in terror or being the cause of the self-administered abortion in the first place. In fact someone tells the child who promptly dies screaming in imaginary hellfire. Wolff’s gesture is fruitless.
Stevenson though concentrates every muscle to a kind of lasered self. Wolff’s clipped speech, her remorseless clarity, tripping up colleagues on ‘whom’ (her Junior Kirsty Rider turns this on her in a rare moment of stress slippage) only relaxes in her home environment.
There’s Wolff’s young transgender friend Sami (Ria Zmitrowicz) who finds a safe space for her evolving identity, telling her of her first sexual encounters. Wolff’s partner Charlie (Joy Richardson) occupies a more liminal space as the play circles. But Wolff’s not good at protecting those in her space. In more than one sense she lets stones through windows.
Directed by Icke (Resident Director’s TD Moyo), The Doctor’s designed by Hildegard Bechtler with a clinically minimal stage that’s become a speciality of the Almeida. A set of benches and table on the stage with a sliding rear entrance and side exits compels focus. It’s similarly lit by Natasha Chivers with an accent on clinical white and softer amber elsewhere, shifting vividly for TV projections. Tom Gibbons’ composition and sound design is pointed up by Hannah Ledwidge’s superb additional material played by her. She’s placed above with her percussion interleaving tensely throughout; a remorseless commentary. Deborah Andrews and Megan Doyle keep costumes monochrome.
Icke’s cast against type so black plays white as well as the gender fluidity you’d expect, though identifying a male actor as female and visa versa. Actors make this work, though the only challenge here is an audience creating aide-memoires every time an actor announces they’re black when you assume the opposite. It’s not so much an exercise in pointing up our own racial blindness (and we’re not all white on the night I went) as one in breathless catch-up.
What Icke brilliantly stages is the TV hearing, with all the sociological and cultural history professors (the rest of the cast) quizzing Wolff as if she’s transgressed more than religion and gender – somehow used against her, with the toxicity or racial profiling. It’s an excoriating scene and though Wolff rallies you can see her crumble with revelations of her own life knocking her further off-kilter. With a denouement, accusations and a final unexpected visit, we’re left wondering whether Paul Higgins’ priest (who plays the violent father of the dead child) proves how religious Wolff is. It’s something Schnitzler himself asked and Icke’s remarkably faithful to the spirit of Schnitzler throughout.
There’s fine performances too from Oliver Alvin-Wilson (supportive Dr Copley, also the TV host) who makes a passionately supportive speech. Wirthner’s venomous, velvety Hardiman is magnificent as Wolff’s politicizing nemesis and spikes that speech with a simple dismissal. Rabin’s sanctimonious Murphy is a fine study in an inadequate doctor who uses prejudice and politics. Nathalie Armin’s Jemima Flint the medical grandee who’d once been so promising but let a patient die so as not to annoy her senior now has to make the decisions over her old mentor. Pamela Nomvete’s Dr Cyprian and Mariah Louca’s Rebecca Roberts Wolff’s supportive PR who can’t get Wolff onside.
There’s a forensic ferocity to this headlong study in medical autonomy, arrogance, all kinds of prejudice, optics and the way it challenges the good; and how obdurate the latter is when it thinks itself always in the right. In its excoriating last minutes Stevenson seems to gain an even greater stature in both her crumbling and nobility in confronting it. Minor caveat aside, it’s a triumph for all concerned. Icke’s last production could hardly go better than this.