For his final production as associate director of the Almeida Theatre, Robert Icke dissects the bloodied, grisly subjects of medical ethics, identity politics and online outrage.
Loosely adapted from Arthur Schnitzler’s 1912 play Professor Bernhardi, The Doctor opens with a 14-year-old girl named Emily admitted to hospital with sepsis from a self-administered and botched abortion. Barely conscious, she is unaware of her own critical condition.
A catholic priest sent by the girl’s parents arrives to administer the last rites. The doctor in charge of her case, Professor Ruth Wolff (Juliet Stevenson), refuses the priest entry because she believes Emily will die a more peaceful death if she remains ignorant of how seriously ill she is.
As with Schnitzler’s original, news of the doctor’s actions quickly gain huge publicity, followed by public outcry. Wolff’s Jewishness becomes a part of the scandal with voices inside and outside the private medical facility she founded suggesting the doctor discriminates against Christians.
From the first indications of protest via an online petition, news of the case spreads as rapidly as spores in a Petri dish. Wolff is the subject of more and more accusations, including the suggestion she struck the priest. Soon, she is at the centre of a social media-led rampage that spills over from the virtual into the real world.
Juliet Stevenson is superb as the unravelling doctor forced to witness her entire existence as she knows it disintegrate. A studied air of superiority, which manifests itself in obsessive grammar correction, falls away to reveal a woman whose body visibly vibrates with the shockwaves sent through it. Naomi Wirthner is also terribly unsettling as Roger Hardiman, Wolff’s colleague who ferociously seizes the opportunity to oust his competition.
Hildegard Bechtler’s set design is as clinical as they come, a sterile hospital environment of pale wood panelling and rows of penetrating strip lights that occasionally blink. A large corporate table rotates on an excruciatingly slow revolve while a live soundtrack of repeated drum beats keeps time almost without pause.
For a play seemingly based around a number of basic oppositions: religion versus science, Jews versus Christians, post-war politics versus millennial identity politics, and so on, the brilliance of Icke’s work lies in how it absolutely refuses to provide a clear answer to who is right and who is wrong. Everything about The Doctor, both as a production and as a narrative, avoids the type of decisive, final assessment favoured by both the medical world and the online, hate-filled sphere of social media.
This is a play that, like very little else on stage, carries the suggestion of genuine danger with it at all moments. It is stomach churning, nauseating and, most of all, absolutely mesmerising.