On the surface, The Doctor could seem like your standard medical drama, but it would be completely wrong to place this play in just one box. This is a show with so many layers to it, and it refuses to be categorised.

© Manuel Harlan

Robert Icke’s The Doctor is loosely based on Arthur Schnitzler’s Professor Bernhardi. The play opened at the Almeida in 2019, headlined the Adelaide Festival in 2020, and has now transferred to the West End, after a delay due to the pandemic.

The Doctor centres around Professor Ruth Wolff, a doctor working at a private institute which is attempting to discover a cure for dementia. A 14-year-old girl is admitted to the emergency department with sepsis after a self-administered abortion. Father (John Mackay), a priest arrives to perform last rites for the young girl, at the request of her catholic parents. Professor Wolff refuses this, stating she doesn’t know that the young patient is catholic. This is the premise for the play, the debate of whether the priest should have been allowed to see the patient or not, this then progresses into a larger argument of whether people require a doctor that is similar to them i.e., a Jewish doctor for a Jewish patient. The argument eventually moves to confronting people’s, and doctor’s in particular, unconscious biases.

Hildegard Bechtler’s staging is minimalistic and clinical, perfectly portraying the hospital environment in which most of the show is set in. A revolve is utilised allowing the audience to see each character’s expression during scenes of important discussion. Hannah Ledwidge is sat playing the drums above the stage throughout, which adds intensity to the scenes as they unfold, and aiding the flow of the play by including short drum interludes during scene changes.

Professor Ruth Wolff is a straightlaced, no nonsense woman; she corrects grammar and pronunciation, and possesses a level of privilege as a white, privately educated person. She keeps her personal life private from her colleagues and tells everyone that she doesn’t subscribe to religion or other groups, something only a person with privilege can do.

© Manuel Harlan

Sepia lighting floods the stage during scenes between Ruth and her partner Charlie (Juliet Garricks) at their home. Ruth also has a young friend called Sami (Matilda Tucker). It was never really explained why the two of them were friends, and how this occurred, which struck me as odd – surely it would be considered strange to have a friend that attends school and to give them a key to your house?

Stevenson doesn’t leave the stage during the entire show, which is just under 3 hours in length (including the interval). She does not even leave the stage during the interval. Stevenson gives one of the best performances I have witnessed this year, a compelling passionate portrayal of a flawed individual, that at first refuses to believe she is in the wrong. To put it simply, Stevenson is sensational, and this is an award-worthy performance.

The secret weapon that this play possesses is its ability to confront our unconscious biases. The audience are not privy to knowing the gender or the race of a character upon first glance, you must wait until the actor tells us the information. This is ingenious. In a play all about unconscious biases, this challenges the audience directly throughout the performance. The Doctor asks us to recognise our privilege, confront our biases and recognise how we can do better.

This is one of the best plays I’ve seen this year. Great theatre should be about more than entertainment – it should provoke thought, challenge our views and confront us. This is the type of theatre that sticks with you, requiring thought and a digestion period after consumption. I’m sure we’ll be hearing Stevenson’s name and the title of the play a lot come awards season. This is one appointment with The Doctor you don’t want to miss!

Rating: 5 out of 5.
The DoctorDuke of York’s TheatreUntil 11th of December


{🎟 AD – PR invite – Tickets were gifted in exchange for an honest review}

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