How Robert Icke's 'The Doctor' combines 20th-century history with current affairs

Marianka Swain
Marianka Swain

If you missed Robert Icke’s acclaimed 2019 production of The Doctor at the Almeida Theatre, starring Juliet Stevenson, then good news: it’s making a welcome transfer to the West End. But this clever reworking of Arthur Schnitzler’s 1912 play hasn’t been without controversy too. Read on for our definitive guide to this incendiary, thought-provoking drama and why it’s a must-see.

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The Doctor was originally Professor Bernhardi

Icke based The Doctor on Arthur Schnitzler’s 1912 work. Schnitzler was a doctor-writer: an Austrian dramatist, born in Vienna in 1862, who studied medicine, received his doctorate and worked at Vienna’s General Hospital, before changing professions in order to focus on his writing. That ranged from novels, novellas and short stories to poetry, one-act and full-length plays.

Both Schnitzler and his wife Olga were born into Jewish families, and a prevailing theme in his work is a robust criticism of antisemitism. His work also caused comment because of its graphic depiction of sexuality - such as his scandalous play Reigen, which David Hare adapted as The Blue Room, famously featuring Nicole Kidman in its premiere London production.

But it was Schnitzler’s experience as a doctor that most influenced his fascinating play Professor Bernhardi. Set at a Vienna clinic, it sees the Jewish physician of the title treating a girl who is dying of sepsis following an abortion. A priest, Father Reder, wants to give her the last rites, claiming she needs to be absolved of sin, but Bernhardi refuses: the girl is currently content because she believes she’s recovering, whereas the priest would cause her distress. But a nurse tells the girl that the priest is here: that knowledge hastens her death.

The case becomes a public scandal, fuelled by latent antisemitism. An influential professor offers to bribe judicial officers so Bernhardi can avoid a trial - but only if Bernhardi installs a Christian doctor at his clinic rather than his preferred Jewish candidate, who was chosen based on merit. Bernhardi refuses.

In a private meeting, Father Reder acknowledges that Bernhardi’s actions, as the girl’s physician, were actually correct, but he can’t say that publicly because it undermines his and the church’s authority. The trial goes against Bernhardi, with severe consequences, but he decides not to appeal.

Schnitzler uses this knotty play to explore identity (Bernhardi is an Austrian, a Jew, and a doctor), and whether medicine can ever be shorn of biography and personal, racial, political or religious views. Schnitzler reflected his own turbulent society in the piece, writing in his diary that he was inspired by his disgust at contemporary public life - at the political opportunism, trend towards intolerance, and, most worryingly, the growing antisemitism.

That made it too provocative for Vienna: the censor refused him a licence for performance on the basis that it was an unflattering depiction of Austrian public life. Instead, the play had its world premiere in Berlin in 1912. It was not performed in Vienna until six years later, when Europe looked very different indeed. As Schnitzler summed up: “It has taken a World War and a Revolution to make this production possible.”

Robert Icke tackles identity politics in The Doctor

Icke’s brilliant reworking of Schnitzler’s play turns Bernhardi into Dr Ruth Wolff, a hotshot surgeon and the executive director of the private Elizabeth Institute - a clinic and research centre. The premise is essentially the same: she refuses entry to a priest while treating a girl who had a botched at-home abortion.

But her dilemma then stems from a very modern ill - social media. Her altercation with the priest, which he recorded on his phone, goes viral, and Ruth is bombarded with abuse by social media users and activists, as well as facing criticism from the girl’s Catholic father and her own colleagues.

It’s the perfect crucible for a host of contemporary issues in our fraught age of identity politics. It pits a lapsed Jewish woman who believes in science against a devout Christian man, asks us to balance the rights of the patient, the parent, the doctor and the priest, interrogates different kinds of blinkered privilege, and forces the audience to question their own prejudices and presumptions.

Icke manages the latter via a truly brilliant theatrical coup. Suffice to say that all is not as it first appears — and you’ll be surprised to discover how certain revelations make you completely reassess your response to what has come before. It turns a theoretical debate into a bold, visceral and very theatrical challenge, one guaranteed to throw audiences for a loop.

The Doctor is more relevant than ever

Icke’s drama already felt like the play for the moment, thanks to its illustration of feverish identity politics and cancel culture — the latter hastened by social media outrage that can quickly spin out of control. Ruth finds herself the subject of targeted campaigns, vicious trolls and righteous petitions, a kind of modern witch hunt.

But there’s another element which would make such a case even more polarising in 2022: the medical crisis stems from a girl taking desperate measures to self-administer an abortion. In the play, there’s a suggestion that Ruth was particularly fierce in trying to protect the girl’s rights, as opposed to appeasing the priest and parents, because she holds them and their faith responsible for the patient not being able to get a safe abortion in hospital in the first place.

That scenario is now a horrifying reality for women across the United States following the overturning of Roe v Wade by the Supreme Court, a shocking decision that has made the issue of a woman’s right to choose a fiercely urgent one, and has reignited debate in America and around the world.

It means the case in The Doctor, which specifically raises the question of how an unwanted pregnancy could alter a vulnerable young girl’s life — or, as here, cause her death — is now part of a wider existential debate. That premise will have a very different impact on audiences as the play is revived in the West End, and is even more likely to spark furious debate among theatregoers.

Juliet Stevenson reprises her role in The Doctor

Ruth is a riveting creation: uncompromising and intellectual, rules-bound and ruthlessly logical, a medical genius yet far too naive when it comes to the world outside of her professional sphere. Icke also gives her a poignant home life, allowing us to understand the very personal mission behind her laser-focussed research into Alzheimer’s and why she wants to protect her clinic so badly.

It’s a truly great role for an actress, and a blazing match with the mighty Juliet Stevenson - an Olivier Award winner and three-time Bafta nominee for work such as Truly, Madly, Deeply, Bend It Like Beckham, Death and the Maiden and Les Liaisons Dangereuses. She handles all of the character’s complexity and contradictions with aplomb. Thankfully, she is reprising her Ruth at the Duke of York’s Theatre in the West End, once again anchoring this dynamic play for our divided times.

We might not be able to agree on much at the moment, but we can definitely agree that Stevenson’s performance in The Doctor is a must-see, as is Icke’s towering production.

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Photo credit: Juliet Stevenson in The Doctor (Photo courtesy of production)

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