GOODNESS, how very difficult life is nowadays.
The 35-year-old Robert Icke, already hailed as the great hope of British Theatre, has corralled a huge swathe of these difficulties into one confusing, devastating and undeniably brilliant evening of drama in The Doctor, his reworking of Arthur Schnitzler’s 1912 play Professor Bernhardi. I haven’t seen the original – few of us have. Wikipedia says it is billed as “a comedy in five acts”, and explores antisemitism and Austrian-Jewish identity.
The Doctor is certainly not a comedy, though there are some dangerous laughs (who might hear YOU laugh at such an “inappropriate” moment?). Start off by hurling away all your preconceptions. How do you picture a leading consultant? Male, white, authoritarian, impatient, overbearing … well this one, Professor Ruth Wolff, is all of those except male. Her team at the leading research institute she founded is hand-picked on the basis of their clinical and intellectual excellence. Big, expensive expansion is on its way.
So far so comprehensible. But before the moment that sets the story in train, we are introduced to Roger, a trouble-making professor played by a black woman, to a junior male doctor played by an Asian man, to a black doctor played by a white man, and a black male actor playing a white Jewish man. We are supposed to be seeing the team as Ruth does – without any colour, religious or gender prejudice.
All this while following the machine-gun dialogue that encompasses ideas and language unfamiliar to most audiences. Then in comes a tall, lanky, ginger headed man with a Scottish accent, and he is played by an actor well known in the region, John Mackay, a regular with the Tobacco Factory in Bristol. And some time much further on in the play, we are told that he is, in fact, black.
The Doctor makes essential points about identity, prejudice, the way we approach and treat other people. It focusses on abortion, original sin, religious faith and intolerance, suicide, gender fluidity, workplace respect … I could go on and on. If you have ever described a play as “thought-provoking” before, you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet.
It is awesome, in the true sense of the word. The performances, led by Juliet Stevenson as Prof Wolff, are simply stunning. There is a percussive soundtrack, played mostly live on stage by Hannah Ledwidge.
I couldn’t be more glad to have seen it, but I wonder if Icke, as his farewell fling to the Almeida where he has been associate director for years, made a list of all the things he most hated about British society and the world we live in, threw it into a cement mixer, waved a magic wand and by some miracle conjuction, came out with an almost coherent play that can shake society to its foundations.
And this at the time when Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II has died after a 70 year reign, and all of us, willingly or not, are touched, has an even more overwhelming effect.