BWW Review: THE DOCTOR, Almeida Theatre
Robert Icke, an associate director at the Almeida for the past six years, bids farewell in typically bold and epic fashion with his latest contemporary update. Arthur Schnitzler's Professor Bernhardi, which premiered in 1912, has been skilfully reconfigured as an interrogation of 2019's preoccupation with 'identity'.
Professor Ruth Wolff, a leading surgeon and head of a private medical clinic and dementia research centre, is caring for a 14-year-old girl with life-threatening sepsis following a botched at-home abortion. A priest demands access to give her the last rites, at the behest of the girl's Catholic parents, but Ruth refuses, believing such intervention would wrench her patient out of the calm, semi-conscious state that leads to a peaceful death.
The incident quickly becomes public, thanks partly to the priest recording their exchange on his mobile, and opens up a Pandora's box of social and ethical debate. Was Ruth prejudiced in her thinking, as a (lapsed) Jewish woman who thinks that science trumps faith? Did she act in the best interests of her patient, whose personal religious views were unknown, or did she actually limit her choices? And was she influenced by the thought that, had the girl been allowed by her parents to have a safe abortion in hospital, she might not be on her deathbed?
Icke cleverly captures our outrage culture (cue the online petitions - social media's witch hunt), showing how one incident can quickly spiral into scandal and become co-opted by outside groups with polarising views. Soon, it doesn't really matter whether Ruth acted properly within medical guidelines, as she becomes the symbol of bullying privilege and unconscious bias, her personal views ferociously grilled, while she herself becomes more overtly the victim of sexist and antisemitic intolerance.
Yet Ruth is determined to assert herself as a doctor; biographical details are irrelevant in a professional context, she stresses. But though she refuses to put herself in a particular tribe, it's not quite that simple. Has she, as a senior woman in medicine, made an effort to hire more women to address the industry's gender gap? Has she also deliberately taken more Jewish doctors onto her staff than Christian? Can one be justified more than the other?
Some of this debating is a little dry in theatrical terms, particularly in an overlong first half that could use a deftly wielded surgeon's knife. But when the conflicts come to a head, it's riveting. Additionally, Icke cunningly casts against gender and racial identifiers. We don't discover until partway through the play that, for example, a white actor is actually representing a black character and vice versa, or that a woman is playing a man.
It's a fascinating trick, uncovering the audience's own biases. I found my response to one character's belligerent anger altered significantly upon a reveal, and likewise another's assumption of power. As our perspectives shift, so does the stage in a gradual revolve - another effective way to enliven scenes and literally give us a new point of view. However, the character reveals are perhaps overused as a device; too much of the viewer's brain becomes concerned with the puzzle, rather than the drama.
The one exemption is Ruth, and the work is weighted heavily towards her as the most richly drawn person - plus we glimpse those all-important biographical details, with wrenching scenes showing her home life, and the very personal motivation for her research. Her critics are generally unsympathetic, even in some cases slightly comic, whether anti-abortion activists or "woke" millennials, and their academic arguments are overshadowed by the frightening abuse Ruth endures (plus more than one comparison to Nazi Germany).
It's difficult, too, for anyone to compete with the great Juliet Stevenson when it comes to audience engagement, and she's on blazing form here. Her strictly contained physicality as the compartmentalising, superior, rules-bound Ruth is released briefly twice - in tentative joy, and then in wild despair. Both strike the heart.
Stevenson also shows how this intellectually brilliant woman adheres too strictly to the letter of the law, not understanding public image and institutional politics. It's a source of humour in an otherwise fiercely tense scene, with Ruth trying to stick to a meeting agenda, while her colleagues start prioritising issues like the views of their financial donors. Yet even within medicine, is it always "crystal clear", as she keeps repeating? What about the times when a lie is kinder to the patient, a source of hope?
There's excellent support from Oliver Alvin-Wilson, Naomi Wirthner, Pamela Nomvete, Kirsty Rider and Daniel Rabin as Ruth's fellow physicians, plus Nathalie Armin as the slippery Health Minister, Paul Higgins as the priest, and Ria Zmitrowicz as another teenage girl in Ruth's care.
Hildegard Bechtler's unfussy set features a long table - placing people on opposite sides for binary confrontations - and harsh institutional lighting from Natasha Chivers. There's also fantastic percussive underscoring from drummer Hannah Ledwidge, a creative soundscape from Tom Gibbons (transforming something as familiar as a kettle boiling), and effective use of filmed projections for one key scene, placing Ruth in unflinching close-up.
Both Ruth and the piece as a whole are obsessively concerned with language, too - the former correcting grammatical inaccuracy, while Icke teases out the way language can be used as social code or weapon, or how one word ("body") changes everything. In this context, the choice of "Ruth" as a character name feels charged.
That linguistic interest isn't always reflected in a fairly straightforward script; when Alzheimer's is described in moving, evocative terms, it's a welcome poetic break - and one that frames the horrific disease as an assault on our fundamental human identity. But this meaty piece is certainly thought-provoking, and Stevenson provides its memorably wounded soul.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan