The Theatreguide.London Review
Almeida Theatre Summer 2019
Robert Icke's new play,
'very freely adapted' from a 1912 drama by Arthur Schnitzler, is a
play of ideas, one in which the fictional situation is just the
trigger for a string of debates on the underlying issues. Such debate
plays can, in the right hands (Shaw, Stoppard, Hare, etc), be as
emotionally involving as they are intellectually stimulating.
conception, writing and production The Doctor is a
very model of how not to do a play of ideas.
A brilliant and
dedicated doctor-researcher bars a Catholic priest from the bedside
of a dying patient because the patient didn't ask for him and the
doctor believes his presence will be more upsetting than comforting.
The event goes public,
self-appointed spokespersons for various
special interest groups make their positions known, and essentially
irrelevant charges of racism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, and elitism
are tossed back and forth until the original issue is all but
The doctor is demonised,
hounded and eventually destroyed,
all the good work she might have done lost. (There are vague echoes
here of Strindberg's An Enemy Of The People in the protagonist who is
in the right but too unbending or politically naive to do anything
but harm herself.)
But you won't care.
Despite the earnest
a talented cast led by Juliet Stevenson, there isn't a single human
being represented on the stage.
Every character is
written and played
as a symbol or a mouthpiece for a debating position. (In one major
scene set in a television debate, the characters actually introduce
themselves as representing one special interest group or another.)
There is no one, not
even the protagonist, that we can recognise,
empathise with or really care about. There may be moments of
interesting argument, but there is simply no play here.
not helped by what can only be called awkward play writing.
is evidently an attempt to stretch the play's meanings beyond the
triggering issue of doctor v. priest, playwright Icke repeatedly
strays off into debates on such peripheral or in some cases totally
irrelevant topics as race, religion, linguistics, in-house politics,
abortion, careerism, gender confusion in adolescents and the
suffering of Alzheimer's.
When the play repeatedly
goes off topic to
be about something else for ten minutes or so, continuity and focus
When a politician is
introduced in Act One to express her
absolute support for the doctor you know what she's going to do in
Act Two and that that is the only reason she's in the play at all.
The final half-hour of
the play is a conversation between two
characters who never, ever would have met in real life, and its hints
at a fragile kind of reconciliation and growth on both sides have the
feel of a desperate attempt to end on some sort of positive note.
also isn't until the last moments of the play that Juliet Stevenson's
character is given a personal backstory that might have humanised her
had we known it earlier – and that we learn that another character
we have been watching through the entire play has been dead all along
and present only in someone's imagination.
Acting as his own
Robert Icke makes some choices that are theoretically admirable but
in this particular case counterproductive. His casting is assertively
colourblind and genderblind, with white actors playing black
characters and vice versa, male actors playing female characters and
You can even see why he
wanted a bit of confusion in a
play at least partly about labels and prejudicial assumptions. But
when we are first told midway through the play that a while actor
we've been watching is playing a black character, and the character's
race is made a central issue in some of the debates, our confusion –
however momentary – is a harmful distraction.
It probably doesn't
matter which gender some of the characters are, but when you approach
the end of the play and realise you still don't know about at least
three of them, you are thinking about something other than the play.
You will leave The Doctor admiring, as always, Juliet Stevenson. You may even be stimulated to think about some of the issues raised. But you won't care.
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