Those three letters can express accurately one’s reaction to The Doctor, Robert Icke’s play with Juliet Stevenson playing at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London. You can say WOW to your friends or use other stock phrases of enthusiasm for outstanding acting in a brilliant production of a play that inspires thinking and provides heated discussion. I say WOW again but that is not enough to fill my column in the paper and I must elaborate.
Ruth Wolff is a brilliant doctor and the director of the Elizabeth Institute, a major health centre dedicated to finding a cure for Alzheimer’s. She is an outstanding researcher and a powerful woman who is called Professor but also BB, for Big Bad Wolff. One of her colleagues refers to her as a woman in name only.
Professor Wollf is played by Juliet Stevenson and you will remember her performance long after you have forgotten the play.
Even though the Institute concentrates on dementia patients, a 14-year-old girl is admitted after a botched, self-administered abortion and she is dying. She is Dr. Wolff’s patient. A priest comes to the Institute to give the girl last rites.
There is a fierce confrontation between Wolff and the priest. She refuses to allow him to see the girl, while he insists on going in her room Dr, Wolff repulses him to the point of some physical contact. The girl dies without getting last rites which, according to the priest, would have erased her sins.
The battle line is drawn. The doctor in her medical judgment believed that letting the priest see the girl would have caused her to die in distress. The priest and her parents believe she would have died at peace having received last rites.
The medical defence of not allowing the priest to visit the patient explodes into a question of the religion versus science and then into a non-practicing Jew (Dr. Wolff) not respecting the position of the Catholic Church.
That’s just the beginning. The brilliant staff of the Institute become divided and antisemitism creeps in. The appointment of the next director of pharmacology becomes an issue. Do you appoint the most qualified who happens to be a Jew or the black Catholic who will be more acceptable to the donors for the construction of a new centre?
The issue becomes viral in social media and a pained Dr. Wolff has to defend herself on television before a hostile panel of journalists.
I will mention a few of the eleven cast members that carry the brilliant and provocative arguments and conversations in the play. Fierce opinions, pride, convictions and arrogance erupt in riveting arguments and sit-on-the edge of your seat theatre. Naomi Wirthner as Dr. Hardiman, is a Catholic and an antisemite but a great neurosurgeon; Dona Croll as Cyprian, is the medical director and Wolff’s opponent. Chris Osikanlu Colquhoun as Copley and Daniel Rabin as Murphy join in the fierce arguments. The calm priest (John Mackay) visits Wolff after the issue blows over and shows that he did more in defence of Catholicism than of truth. Preeva Kalidas as Flint, the Minister of Health, is prepared to be treacherous for her own reason.
There is an opaque side to the play in relation to Wolff’s home life, Charlie (Juliet Garricks) is her partner but I was not sure about the reality of his existence. Sami (Matilda Tucker) is her transgender daughter and we see Wollf’s tender and human side as opposed to the fierce defender of her medical ethics.
There are riveting arguments about identity, racism and the preponderance of science over religion. There are quick scene changes as the protagonists and antagonists move on and off the stage before can digest the last exchange.
The set and costumes by Hildegard Bechtler are pristine and clinical as one might except in a hospital.
The Doctor is an adaptation by Icke of Arthur Schnitzler’s 1912 Viennese “comedy” Professor Bernhardi. Icke is fairly faithful to that play by he brings in his own ideas and the result is riveting and unforgettable theatre.
The Doctor by Robert Icke adapted from Arthur Schnitzler’s play Professor Bernhardi continues until December 11, 2022 at the Duke of York’s Theatre, 104 St. Martin’s Lane, London, WC2N 4BG. https://www.thedukeofyorks.com/the-doctor