ROBERT ICKE is outrageously talented. He became associate director of the Almeida at the age of 27 and fizzed with several high-profile productions. For his final summer there, in 2019, he presented The Doctor, another rewrite-update, this time of the 1912 play Professor Bernhardi. Due to transfer in spring 2020, but then Covided off, it has finally happened. Icke has taken the script of the “doctor-writer” Arthur Schnitzler, which was originally an examination of anti-Semitism and divisive radicalism as the Habsburg empire sputtered. More than a century on, it is fertile ground for looking at medicalism, ethics, and identity politics.
Dr Ruth Wolff (Juliet Stevenson) runs a successful dementia clinic and research institute. A teenage girl develops fatal sepsis there after a botched abortion, and a Roman Catholic priest (John Mackay) arrives, sent by the parents who can’t make it. Wolff refuses him access to give the last rites, and in a scuffle punches him. It becomes a lightning rod for a fallout among the clinic’s staff, for the dead girl’s father to threaten that he will go public with the scandal, and for Wolff’s old schoolfriend who is now a government minister to reconsider the offer of increased funding.
The faultlines of identity politics are exposed everywhere, not least in the presentation. “As a white man,” says one doctor, played by a black woman (Naomi Wirthner). Wolff is told that her assault on the priest was worse because he is black; he is played by a white actor. Stevenson’s character is Jewish, but is she? It is a neat comment on the current doctrine of ethnicity, gender, and sexuality in the theatre, making this casting properly blind and neutral across all fronts.
Wolff also has a home life with a partner, Charlie (loving played by Juliet Garricks), but, as the other characters seek to understand something of that, we, too, cannot tell whether her partner is male, female, or Jewish; the script doesn’t tell us. But we do know that the partner has dementia, which makes her medical mission very personal. There is also an urchin girl, Sami (Matilda Tucker), with an unhappy home life, who spends time in Wolff’s house, bringing out a maternal instinct.
Icke gives two thrilling scenes. In one, the clinic staff confront Wolff, splinter, and eject her; in the other, she faces more critics on a TV chat show, her solitary back to the audience with live audio-visual projection of her face on to the back wall. Hildegard Bechtler’s bleached-wood half-drum multi-door set frames the action, with lighting by Natasha Chivers, and the pulsing beat of a live drummer, Hannah Ledwidge, overhead. It is a strong piece, asking honest questions, and making the old seem new, and the new in need of its own medicine.
The Doctor is at the Duke of York’s Theatre, St Martin’s Lane, London WC2, until 11 December. Bookings: phone 03330 096 690. thedoctorwestend.co.uk