The Theatreguide.London Review
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
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
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.
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