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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Doctor
Almeida Theatre   Summer 2019; Duke of York's Theatre Autumn 2022

Robert Icke's new play, 'very freely adapted' from a 1912 drama by Arthur Schnitzler, is a play of ideas, one in which the fictional situation is just the trigger for a string of debates on the underlying issues. Such debate plays can, in the right hands (Shaw, Stoppard, Hare, etc), be as emotionally involving as they are intellectually stimulating.

Unfortunately, in conception, writing and production The Doctor is a very model of how not to do a play of ideas.

A brilliant and dedicated doctor-researcher bars a Catholic priest from the bedside of a dying patient because the patient didn't ask for him and the doctor believes his presence will be more upsetting than comforting.

The event goes public, self-appointed spokespersons for various special interest groups make their positions known, and essentially irrelevant charges of racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, and elitism are tossed back and forth until the original issue is all but forgotten.

The doctor is demonised, hounded and eventually destroyed, all the good work she might have done lost. (There are vague echoes here of Strindberg's An Enemy Of The People in the protagonist who is in the right but too unbending or politically naive to do anything but harm herself.)

But you won't care.

Despite the earnest efforts of a talented cast led by Juliet Stevenson, there isn't a single human being represented on the stage.

Every character is written and played as a symbol or a mouthpiece for a debating position. (In one major scene set in a television debate, the characters actually introduce themselves as representing one special interest group or another.)

There is no one, not even the protagonist, that we can recognise, empathise with or really care about. There may be moments of interesting argument, but there is simply no play here.

Things are not helped by what can only be called awkward play writing.

In what is evidently an attempt to stretch the play's meanings beyond the triggering issue of doctor v. priest, playwright Icke repeatedly strays off into debates on such peripheral or in some cases totally irrelevant topics as race, religion, linguistics, in-house politics, abortion, careerism, gender confusion in adolescents and the suffering of Alzheimer's.

When the play repeatedly goes off topic to be about something else for ten minutes or so, continuity and focus are lost.

When a politician is introduced in Act One to express her absolute support for the doctor you know what she's going to do in Act Two and that that is the only reason she's in the play at all.

The final half-hour of the play is a conversation between two characters who never, ever would have met in real life, and its hints at a fragile kind of reconciliation and growth on both sides have the feel of a desperate attempt to end on some sort of positive note.

It also isn't until the last moments of the play that Juliet Stevenson's character is given a personal backstory that might have humanised her had we known it earlier and that we learn that another character we have been watching through the entire play has been dead all along and present only in someone's imagination.

Acting as his own director Robert Icke makes some choices that are theoretically admirable but in this particular case counterproductive. His casting is assertively colourblind and genderblind, with white actors playing black characters and vice versa, male actors playing female characters and vice versa.

You can even see why he wanted a bit of confusion in a play at least partly about labels and prejudicial assumptions. But when we are first told midway through the play that a white actor we've been watching is playing a black character, and the character's race is made a central issue in some of the debates, our confusion however momentary is a harmful distraction.

It probably doesn't matter which gender some of the characters are, but when you approach the end of the play and realise you still don't know about at least three of them, you are thinking about something other than the play.

You will leave The Doctor admiring, as always, Juliet Stevenson. You may even be stimulated to think about some of the issues raised. But you won't care.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  The Doctor - Almeida Theatre 2019
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