Theatre Review: The Doctor

Words by Melissa Blease
Playing at The Theatre Royal Bath until 13 – 17 September

A teenager is dying from sepsis following a botched abortion. A priest arrives at the hospital to give the girl the last rites, at the behest of the girl’s Catholic parents. Senior clinician Dr Ruth Wolff vehemently refuses the priest access to her patient on the basis that she doesn’t want to distress the semi-delirious girl. The teenager dies. 

Should the doctor have allowed the priest to be at her patient’s bedside to absolve her of her ‘sins’ in the final moments of her life? The girl’s father very definitely thinks so, as do several hospital staff and – within a few short hours after the girl’s death – a rapidly growing network of social media users who’ve viewed a leaked recording of Dr Wolff’s heated altercation with the priest on the internet.  

Dr Wolff, by the way, is a white, Jewish woman. The priest, by the way, is a black man. But we aren’t immediately made aware of either of those details; indeed, aside from Dr Wolff, we only gradually learn the gender and ethnicity of the various characters we meet as the play progresses, adding further degrees of nuance to an already highly-charged, intense drama.

Identity, religion, ethnicity, privilege, status, gender, politics, grief, internal bias, institutional racism, courage of conviction, social media witch-hunts. Is the science behind modern medicine a modern miracle or divine testament to ancient faith…. and what is the actual meaning of woke? Award-winning writer and director Robert Icke has sharpened his scalpel in readiness to dissect every single issue on the list.

Icke’s acclaimed adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s 1912 drama Professor Bernhardi is about as far removed from ‘easygoing’ as theatre gets, bucking the current trend for short, sharp shows in favour of a three-hour, dialogue-laden marathon that crackles with conviction, acumen and purpose throughout (you think you know what an interval feels like? Be prepared to think again). And, at the centre of the action…

Bully or victim? Paragon or pedant? Heretic or scapegoat? In the role of Dr Wolff, Juliet Stevenson is astounding, seamlessly moving from brusque, arrogant, effortlessly witty authoritarian to a vulnerable, exhausted shadow of her former self, taking us on a deep-dive lived experience that we live through with her; an outstanding performance indeed. 

Supporting Stevenson (though not necessarily supporting Dr Wolff), Sabrina Wu’s Junior offers a masterclass in the art of softly-softly backstabbing; Matilda Tucker is utterly endearing as Dr Wolff’s young friend Sami; John Mackay’s Father is subtly charismatic as the priest who turns out to have more in common with Dr Wolff than either of them might have imagined; Juliet Garricks as Dr Wolff’s partner Charlie brings tender poignancy to an otherwise bleak emotional landscape.

Meanwhile, Hildegard Bechtler’s sparse, neon-lit set slowly revolves us through the drama’s evolution, the ebb and flow of key moments punctuated by a lone drummer (Hannah Ledwidge) who appears to be floating above and behind the stage. The moment when the set is temporarily transformed into the backdrop for a subtly-exaggerated parody of a live TV debate, with Dr Wolff’s face magnified and projected on either side of the stage so that every single pained reaction is scrutinised in too-close-for-comfort close-up, is, perhaps, the moment when Stevenson’s raw power and range, and the skilful elegance of Bechtler’s designs, come together in perfect – though thoroughly discomfiting – harmony.

In a similar fashion to both Mamet’s Oleanna and Joe Penhall/James Dacre’s Blue/Orange, The Doctor‘s audience is tossed along on wave upon compelling wave of divisive debate, action and reaction. Ultimately, however, this is a play that’s as much about our collective, inherent dependance on the security of alliances and affiliations as it is about all the other contentious cogitations it raises. You really do need to see The Doctor. 

Tickets available from the Theatre Royal website:

Image credit: Manuel Harlan