Robert Icke, very freely adapted from Arthur Schnitzler’s Professor Bernhardi
Ambassador Theatre Group Productions and Almeida Theatre, Gavin Kalin Productions, Wessex Grove, Dawn Smalberg and Richard Winkler
Theatre Royal Bath
Robert Icke’s The Doctor is hoping it’s second time lucky. Its first critically applauded run towards the back end of 2019 at the Almeida and down under in Australia in early 2020 was halted by you know what. Even so, it did enough to earn nominations left and right during awards season with Olivier nods for Best Play and Best Actress—but three years on from its première in London, it returns to the grand Theatre Royal Bath ahead of a transfer to the West End later this month.
Icke’s prolific run of adaptations, mainly performed at the Almeida, began in 2015 with Oresteia. And much has already been made of the yet-to-turn-forty Icke’s catalogue of work. The former University of Cambridge student became the youngest person to win an Olivier Award for Best Director in 2016 (for the aforementioned Oresteia) and is seen as a ‘beacon’ of British theatre’s future. Critics, journalists and observers love to stick labels on up-and-coming prodigies—and it usually transforms into an unnecessary burden. So what of his latest play?
The Doctor, which is “freely” adapted from Austrian’s Arthur Schnitzler’s 1912 play Professor Bernhardi, puts us into the shoes of Ruth Wolff (played by Stevenson), who, as one might have guessed, is a doctor. Wolff’s professional career begins to unravel and decline after refusing to let a Catholic priest in to see a dying patient. Within a few days, the Alzheimer's expert finds herself under the cosh of her workplace, media and the government.
Despite its première prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, this somehow feels like a perfectly timed second première. It deals with political chaos, political correctness and social tensions at its core with the addition of ethics in the workplace—more specifically, the medical profession. On top, it also throws in a large dose of faith politics, too. Quite a lot to chew on.
But what Icke does so well, backed by a stellar and magnificent Juliet Stevenson, is delicately intertwining these difficult-to-unravel boulders together with precise execution. It is food for thought, and can even be blood-boiling at times, asking its audience what might be right and wrong.
A twist of character portrayal is also refreshing, as are the dynamic back-and-forths driven by Wolff’s grammar police tendencies. The ‘cancel culture’ society is addressed, without displaying a strong preference on its stance. It is a social commentary of identity politics in a world where life and death decisions are required on a second-by-second basis.
Nevertheless, despite alluding to it earlier, it is Stevenson’s near three-hour performance which catches the eye most. The stage star gives simply a tour-de-force and produces a beautiful and awe-inspiring presence. Every beating moment on stage is deftly and powerfully executed.
It is guilty of being twenty or so minutes too long, but Stevenson never fails to keep the light shining. In fact, she is supported excellently by the whole cast—with Chris Osikanlu Coloquhoun (Copley) and Matilda Tucker (Sami) both terrific.
The Doctor transfers to the Duke of York theatre from 29 September after its week-long run at Theatre Royal Bath.
Reviewer: Jacob Newbury