The Doctor Spins Spectacularly Smart in London’s West End

Naomi Wirthner and Juliet Stevenson in Robert Icke’s The Doctor. Photograph: Manuel Harlan.

The London Theatre Review: Day 2a: West End’s The Doctor

By Ross

Without a bit of knowledge of Robert Icke’s play is all about, The Doctor strides confidently in and takes control of the Duke of York’s Theatre. It stands strong and stoically upfront, unpacking complexities such as medical ethics, identity politics, racism, antisemitism, and a whole bunch of other compelling conflicts that are boiling through our society currently, with a brilliance that is astonishing. One of the main vantage points that it forces a confrontation with is the ideas that swirl around unconscious bias and projected constructs. The play sneaks in loudly, filling the space with a focused intensity from the moment the music and the lights pinpoint the actors intently walking in, placing their costume identities in a line across the front of the stage and stepping themselves back. They quickly make the rounds, returning to a different place, stack, and identity, taking their role on with complete assurance of their new stance. It’s a compelling beginning, that sucks you in deeply, madly, and wonderfully, without us even really comprehending the deep levels of meaning that are being expressed in those first few minutes of this truly astonishing and powerfully smart play.

Robert Icke (Almeida Theatre’s Oresteia) has crafted something particularly intelligent and engaging. To say the least. It might be one of the best written and constructed plays I’ve seen in a long time, maybe since The Lehman Trilogy. And definitely, one that can’t be missed, so let’s cross our fingers that it jumps across the pond to Broadway, because, my God, this play is spectacular (the word is it’s coming to the Park Avenue Armory in 2023). As directed and written by Icke, the conflict that reveals itself quickly is just the beginning of a cascade of constructs that never lets up, and never really shows its intricate ideals until it is ready. It takes its time, delivering forth characters with depth and complexities, one by one, and yet deliberately finding a way to let us see them in a completely different light at a moment’s notice. Tense and abrasive, much like the doctor in question, the complete formulation is utterly brilliant and completely electric from beginning to end.

At the center of this rotation is The Doctor, the key that turns the long table round and around all in the name of Professor Ruth Wolff, played by the magnificent Juliet Stevenson (Robert Icke’s West End adaptation of Mary Stuart). Her portrayal of the doctor is the strong-armed glue that holds this majestic puzzle together and keeps it from spinning out of control. She is, at her core, a doctor, and secondary, the director of a leading medical institute where this play is basically structured around. She doesn’t see herself as fitting into any other important groups, yet she does, at least in our eyes, which in essence is what this play is about. What we see, and how we respond to it is the focal point. An important question that keeps being asked to her, by her, and by others, is “would you have responded to that person differently if they were ___?” filling in the blank with a different gender/race/identity/religious order, depending on the pinpointed moment in question. And the answer, even when we believe it is “No“, isn’t always so confidently easy to be one hundred percent certain about.

Juliet Stevenson and Juliet Garricks in Robert Icke’s The Doctor. Photograph: Manuel Harlan.

Professor Wolff, the title she demands to be referred to by, isn’t an easy doctor to deal with. She is respected, that is clear, but not well-liked, and within minutes we see why. It’s also clear that she has a strong sense of what is right, and what is morally and clinically wrong. When she believes she has acted correctly, she holds to that moral standard of not apologizing when no wrong has been committed, even as the tables are turned on that dynamic set designed by Hildegard Bechtler (Old Vic’s Mood Music), who also did the costuming. It gives a solid access to see and take in every argument from every angle, with compelling lighting by Natasha Chivers (Donmar’s Belleville), music and sound by Tom Gibbons (NT/St. Ann’s People Places & Things), and a drummer’s beat by musician Hannah Ledwidge. She is steadfast and demanding, of herself and all those who work alongside her within her team. She can be abrasive and seen as arrogant and bullying, but ultimately, she believes fully in her role as a doctor as the most important part of her being.

The trouble that ignites the spinning forward of this drama is when a 14-year-old patient, her patient, is dying, pretty much without a doubt, as a result of a botched, self-administered abortion. Following her role as her doctor, Ruth refuses entry to a Catholic priest who the patient’s parents called in to read her last rites in the minutes before her death. The interaction is intense, strong-minded, yet smart, written with a complexity that becomes deeper and wiser as we walk through the mess that follows. She refuses because her patient didn’t ask for this, and as her doctor, she doesn’t want to assume that her patient is as Catholic as her parents. She doesn’t want to add stress to her patient’s last few minutes, even though her death is without question quickly approaching. She refuses this man, unknown to anyone in the hospital, who walked off the streets saying that he is the priest connected to her patient’s parents. Rightly so, by the rules that these doctors live by. But that refusal is seen as having something to do with the doctor’s religious beliefs, as she is Jewish (or, as she likes to point out, that her parents are Jewish, not her), and this man is saying he is a Catholic priest (John Mackay), or is there something else we aren’t seeing just yet. He appears to be one thing, maybe maybe he’s something quite different. A collar tells you something, but it doesn’t tell you all. It’s a brilliant setup that leaves many, including the audience, on opposite sides. But are we even assuredly aware of the rules that a doctor must live by, or are we just responding to our fired-up emotions? That is the question. Or at least one of many.

The refusal sparks a firestorm, fueled by an online protest and the parents’, especially the girl’s biological father’s, also played solidly by John Mackay (Almeida’s Machinal), grief and rage. The doctors and personnel of the medical center try their best to move around this issue, even when some of them strongly disagree with Wolff’s handling of the situation. The actors that are assembled around that meeting table playing an assortment of types are all superb, delivering forth remarks and attitudes that speak the emotional truth as strongly as the logical.

But it’s in the unpacking of what we are seeing before us where this drama really starts to wind itself up so wisely and strongly. One by one, we start to understand what that beginning rotation was all about. These actors are not a product of color-blind casting, which is what we might first imagine. Not at all. And It becomes clear through the dialogue that their race, ethnicity, sexual identity, gender identity, are not the same as the characters these fine play. But it’s not blindly done, it is specifically done with intelligence and determination, forcing us to come to terms throughout the play with all the aspects and ideas we have projected on these characters based on how they appear on stage. And when we are told differently through the text, we must confront our unconscious bias, and all the layers and attitudes we have laid at their feet. It’s a complete shock to the system, and in those moments, we realize quite intensely, that this is where the heart of The Doctor lives and breaths.

The shoving at the center of this play shifts and morphs dramatically scene after scene, revealing layers of bias that we weren’t aware of. We are given different ways of looking at that moment, and at Wolff’s response. It’s a fascinatingly complex and forever shifting vantage point. The protest rises and becomes harder and harder to contain and deal with internally, with board members quitting their positions in protest of The Doctor‘s actions and to step outside the fire that is building. The Minister of Health, played exceptionally well by Preeya Kalidas (Royal Court’s Oxford Street), gets involved, who just happens to be one of Wolff’s old medical school colleagues. She states, that it’s “a good time to talk about Jews,” but as the play continues forward, spinning further and further out of Ruth’s control, loyalties and alliances are not strong enough to handle the identity politics that have taken over the medical center. And the timing couldn’t be worse, as it becomes clear that money, specifically the donations needed for a new planned building, is also a primary player in this three-ringed circus. Money, and how this all looks, speaks volumes to some of these characters. Far more than ethics.

John Mackay and Juliet Stevenson (center) with the cast of Robert Icke’s The Doctor. Photograph: Manuel Harlan.

It’s a superbly complicated takedown at the core of The Doctor, with symbolic nods toward the idea of doctors being the equivalent of witches back in the day. The burning of the town witch becomes the central theme with a governmental intervention, a medical board argument, and the antisemitic scapegoating of the doctor within the media and the medical center taking on the role of the townsfolk chant for the burning at the stake. It’s a brilliant layering, stated by the strongly constructed friend who has keys to Ruth’s home. Their conversations about themselves and the revelations made about her unsaid relationships are absolutely lovingly written, expertly delivered by both Matilda Tucker (Guildford’s The Snow Queen) as the high school student friend, and Juliet Garricks (Hope Theatre’s 100 Paintings), as Ruth’s partner, who floats in and out, dispensing love and warmth that Ruth rarely shows outside of that safe space. There is little known about these two, and in one of the most meaningful ways, we learn early on, not to project, just like we did with the others in the cast: Chris Osikanlu Colquhoun (Young Vic’s Yellowman) as Copley; Doña Cross (Chichester’s Home) as Cyprian; Mariah Louca (Young Vic’s Best of Enemies) as Rebecca; Daniel Rabin (Playhouse’s 1984) as Murphy; Naomi Wirthner (National’s Paradise) as Hardiman; and Sabrina Wu (LAMDA’s Miss Julie) as Junior. Because when we pull back, and make the vantage points wide and diverse, we are at our best to understand.

But the heart of the piece lies in the hands of the stunningly brilliant Stevenson and her Ruth, clinging to her hardened belief system that has its roots in medical science. Her arguments are persuasive and logical yet she’s stuck in an inability to see that she might have missed something, in the same way that we find ourselves unpacking biases left, right, and center throughout that we weren’t aware we were holding onto so unconsciously. The formulations and contradictions are stunningly portrayed intellectually and emotionally, finding surprising connection in their determination and captivating honesty. The overall effect is astonishing, having been gifted with something so smart and ceaselessly emotionally strong in its stance. The Doctor is as magnetically magnificent as one could hope for, and it’s only the second of six shows that I’ll be seeing in London during this fall trip of 2022, but it had to be the first I wrote about. Cause it’s just so darn good. Do what you need to do to get an appointment to see The Doctor when it arrives at a theatre near you. You won’t regret it.

Matilda Tucker and Juliet Stevenson in Robert Icke’s The Doctor. Photograph: Manuel Harlan.



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