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Review: The Doctor at Almeida Theatre

PUBLISHED: 11:25 23 August 2019

Ria Zmitowicz and Juliet Stevenson in The Doctor. Picture: Manuel Harlan.

Ria Zmitowicz and Juliet Stevenson in The Doctor. Picture: Manuel Harlan.

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Robert Icke's Almeida swansong is a typically bold and epic updating - this time, of Arthur Schnitzler's 1912 Professor Bernhardi.

The Doctor. Picture: Manuel Harlan.The Doctor. Picture: Manuel Harlan.

The premise is the same, with a Jewish doctor refusing a priest entry to a delirious teenage patient because knowledge of her impending death could lead to a distressing end, but Icke's piece is a very modern examination of identity.

Juliet Stevenson is on blazing form as Professor Ruth Wolff, head of a private clinic researching dementia. She's intellectually brilliant, but naïve when it comes to the importance of PR, optics, handling financial donors and navigating institutional politics.

Ruth believes that medicine trumps faith, and a doctor's professional abilities are paramount, not a personal biography. But her own unconscious biases are soon interrogated.

Icke skilfully captures outrage culture, including an online petition and social media witch hunt. A TV panel debate puts Ruth on trial (and a riveting Stevenson in close-up), and perception soon overtakes whether or not she acted within medical guidelines.

Some of the debating is dry theatrically, but Icke has a clever twist in his casting. We only realise partway through that a woman is playing a man, or a white actor a black character - and we realise, too, how much that affects our response, due to our own biases.

Those reveals eventually distract somewhat, and there's also the issue that the piece is too weighted towards Ruth - she's humanised by her home life, and her opposition (whether anti-abortion activists or 'woke' millennials) is generally either unsympathetic or, on occasion, presented comically.

But the ensemble is strong, particularly Naomi Wirthner, Paul Higgins and Ria Zmitrowicz, while Hildegard Bechtler's slowly revolving stage literally changes our point of view, and fantastic drumming from Hannah Ledwidge ramps up the tension. Another provocative offering from Icke, and Stevenson provides its memorably wounded soul.

Rating: 4/5 Stars.

Continues at Almeida Theatre until September 28. Tickets and more details here.

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