Almeida Theatre, London – until 28 September 2019
Robert Icke has certainly made his mark while associate director at the Almeida. Highs include Hamlet with Andrew Scott and Oresteia with Lia Williams although there was also Mr Burns.
He leaves the Almeida with a challenging piece, his adaptation of the early 20th century play Professor Bernhardi by Arthur Schnitzler. Set in a modern hospital, the protagonist is the formidable Ruth Wolff (Juliet Stevenson) dubbed ‘BB’ (big bad) by her team when she isn’t around.
She is an astute and skilled doctor, a leader in Alzheimer’s research, focused, inflexible and forthright in her views to the point of rudeness. ‘Leaders should lead’ is her mantra but playing the game – the politics of management – isn’t her strong suit and gets her into big trouble.
When a 14-year-old girl is admitted with sepsis from a botched home abortion, Wolff refuses to allow a Catholic priest to give her last rights because the girl hasn’t given her express wish for the priest to be there and she doesn’t want her becoming distressed. Wolff wants her to have a peaceful death but that message gets lost in the row that ensues and she comes across as obstinate.
It is easy to see the escalating maelstrom that could be prevented by a simple apology but Icke throws so much petrol on the bonfire it’s obvious she never stands a chance. Because Wolffe is Jewish, albeit non-practising, she is seen as bigoted.
Because the 14-year-old girl had an abortion, albeit self-administered, the pro-life campaigners see Wolff as pro-abortion. Because the priest is black, albeit played by a white actor Paul Higgins (more on the that later) she is seen as racist.
Because she is a woman leading a female-dominated department it is an issue of sexism.
Throw in a lesbian relationship and a transgender character and you’ve almost got the full set of prejudices.
Warped democracy of social media
It is a challenging play delving beneath the surface of labels, stereotypes and serves to demonstrate the power and warped democracy of social media – and the danger of not listening to your PR team.
In fact, it is Chekhovian in how one simple action that could simply fix a whole raft of problems gets tragically dismissed.
Having women play men, black actors play white, white play black wrong-foots you at first but ultimately serves to challenge perceptions and expose unconscious bias.
There is a final conversation between Wolff and the priest which tonally feels more measured than the heated debates and shouting matches of earlier scenes.
However, it also feels like a sermon at the end of a long and complex contemporary parable.
It is also the time when we learn the most about Wolff and I can’t decide whether how I feel about that.
Timely revelation or manipulation?
Is it better that we don’t have reasons to empathise and therefore judge purely on her actions and justification?
Or is it an attempt to manipulate us into feeling sorry for her after all?
I suppose that depends in part on whether you think she is right to stick so rigidly to her principles and her role in ‘protecting’ the patient.
Juliet Stevenson is formidable
The performances are superb, Juliet Stevenson is as formidable as her character and Ria Zmitrowicz’s dry one-liners are a refreshing light relief particularly as the persistent tension can become a bit numbing.
Disappointed Paul Higgins didn’t get more stage time though.
A common trait of Icke’s work is that he likes long plays. He is a supremely talented writer and director but at 2 hours and 45 minutes, this feels overweight.
I’m giving The Doctor three and a half stars. It is at the Almeida until 28 September.
If you have seen it, let me know what you thought in the comments.
Robert Icke at the Almedia in review:
👍 Hamlet – One of my favourite Hamlets, and I’ve seen a lot of Hamlets.
👍 Mary Stuart – Lia Williams and Juliet Stevenson tossed a coin to see who would play which queen each night. It was electric.
👍 Oresteia – An epic Greek tragedy turned into a compelling and devastating family drama.
👎 Mr Burns – It was clever but assumed a lot of prior knowledge, lacked pace and was too long, way too long.
Let’s block ads! (Why?)