Review - The Doctor starring Juliet Stevenson at the Almeida Theatre
In his final production in his role as associate director at the Almeida, Robert Icke has left a little gift. His modernisation of Arthur Schnitzler’s 105-year-old play Professor Bernhardi is a tense medical drama, but it has handed Juliet Stevenson an electrifying role in which she is absolutely mesmerising
Stevenson doesn’t step foot off stage once for the entirety of the just under three-hour running time (that’s including the interval), as she becomes Professor Ruth Wolff, the doctor at the centre of a medical ethics dilemma as she denies a priest access to a dying girl’s bedside to perform the last rites.
As the altercation develops into a national scandal, a battle between faith and medicine, every single element of the situation is scrutinised under a microscope: her Jewish roots, her white privilege, did she push him, would she have acted the same way if the priest wasn’t Black, would this whole scenario have been blown up If she wasn’t a woman? From hospital board meetings to TV panel debates, Wolff defends herself as the situation spirals away from her. By nature, Wolff is tough. But as this breaks her, you can see the pain develop in Stevenson’s eyes, almost minute-by-minute. You can literally see the pennies dropping.
Icke decides to play with the audience’s innate unconscious bias early on - something he explores more explicitly in the play’s second half – each character only revealing their ethnicity or gender through dialogue and their experience rather than appearance. It‘s clever, it allows you to really trap into the play, and realise this play’s issues first hand.
This production has the feel of a glossy TV medical drama. During tense board meetings or Wolff locking horns with the Minister for Health, the stage revolved, ever so slowly, but it ups the ante. It swirls around to reveal countless angles accompanied by a jazzy drum soundtrack by Hannah Ledwidge. While lighting designer Natasha Chivers subtly emphasises the drama with the lightest flicker.
Throughout it all, Stevenson is crystal clear about her character. She has the coldness and determination of a stern senior doctor, but to see her blank on conversations and slowly fade away is heart-breaking. It’s a magnificent leading performance from the kind of actor who makes you forget you’re watching a play. It’s no coincidence Icke has put one of his favourite actors at the centre of his final production here.
Completely detached from the main narrative, Ria Zmitrowicz’s ability to tell a story is showcased as she plays a schoolgirl who keeps the doctor company at home. It provides some respite, and Zmitrowicz is utterly transfixing.
Paul Higgins doubles up as the Father denied access and the dead girl’s room, and her paternal father enraged that his little girl is burning in hell because of one doctor’s actions. Oliver Alvin-Wilson also gives an impassioned monologue to his fellow doctors about separating identity and profession and seems to be one of the only characters on stage speaking sense.
It’s an enthralling play. An examination of ethics and religion, identity and privilege, and how crises escalate in the 21st century. That is something Icke has done so well at this address, none less with Hamlet and more recently The Wild Duck: bring these classic morality plays into the modern-day to an audience that might otherwise have never known about them. The Doctor keeps to the director's outstanding form, and is one hell of a closer.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan