Without a bit of knowledge of Robert Icke’s play is all about, The Doctor strides confidently in and takes control of the Duke of York’s Theatre. It stands strong and stoically upfront, unpacking complexities such as medical ethics, identity politics, racism, antisemitism, and a whole bunch of other compelling conflicts that are boiling through our society currently, with a brilliance that is astonishing. One of the main vantage points that it forces a confrontation with is the ideas that swirl around unconscious bias and projected constructs. The play sneaks in loudly, filling the space with a focused intensity from the moment the music and the lights pinpoint the actors intently walking in, placing their costume identities in a line across the front of the stage and stepping themselves back. They quickly make the rounds, returning to a different place, stack, and identity, taking their role on with complete assurance of their new stance. It’s a compelling beginning, that sucks you in deeply, madly, and wonderfully, without us even really comprehending the deep levels of meaning that are being expressed in those first few minutes of this truly astonishing and powerfully smart play.
Robert Icke (Almeida Theatre’s Oresteia) has crafted something particularly intelligent and engaging. To say the least. It might be one of the best written and constructed plays I’ve seen in a long time, maybe since The Lehman Trilogy. And definitely, one that can’t be missed, so let’s cross our fingers that it jumps across the pond to Broadway, because, my God, this play is spectacular (the word is it’s coming to the Park Avenue Armory in 2023). As directed and written by Icke, the conflict that reveals itself quickly is just the beginning of a cascade of constructs that never lets up, and never really shows its intricate ideals until it is ready. It takes its time, delivering forth characters with depth and complexities, one by one, and yet deliberately finding a way to let us see them in a completely different light at a moment’s notice. Tense and abrasive, much like the doctor in question, the complete formulation is utterly brilliant and completely electric from beginning to end.
At the center of this rotation is The Doctor, the key that turns the long table round and around all in the name of Professor Ruth Wolff, played by the magnificent Juliet Stevenson (Robert Icke’s West End adaptation of Mary Stuart). Her portrayal of the doctor is the strong-armed glue that holds this majestic puzzle together and keeps it from spinning out of control. She is, at her core, a doctor, and secondary, the director of a leading medical institute where this play is basically structured around. She doesn’t see herself as fitting into any other important groups, yet she does, at least in our eyes, which in essence is what this play is about. What we see, and how we respond to it is the focal point. An important question that keeps being asked to her, by her, and by others, is “would you have responded to that person differently if they were ___?” filling in the blank with a different gender/race/identity/religious order, depending on the pinpointed moment in question. And the answer, even when we believe it is “No“, isn’t always so confidently easy to be one hundred percent certain about.