Friday, March 6, 2020


Juliet Stevenson as Ruth Wolff in The Doctor 

The Doctor.

Written and directed by Robert Icke. Loosely based on Arthur Schnitzler’s 1918 play Professor Bernhardi. Designer Hildegard Bechtier, Lighting. Natasha Chivers. Sound and composition Tom Gibbons. An Almeida Theatre Production presented by Adelaide Festival by arrangement with the Ambassador Theatre Group and Almeida Theatre, Benjamin Lowy, Glass Half Full Productions with Fiery Angel and Charles Diamond in association with Scott Rudin and Sonia Friedman Productions. The Dunstan Playhouse. Adelaide Festival Centre. February 27 – March 1. March 3 – March 8 2020.

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins.

I barely manage to contain my anger. Writer and director Robert Icke’s loose adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s 1918 novel, Professor Bernhardi has unleashed a veritable Pandora’s Box of hypocrisy, prejudice and intolerance. While retaining the essential story line of Schnitzler’s play about a doctor who refuses to allow entry to a priest to perform the last rites on a teenage girl dying of sepsis after a botched abortion, Icke’s play The Doctor is a riveting and terrifyingly explosive indictment of religious intolerance, sexual politics, gender power struggles and the individual’s personal and professional battle against the forces of irrational belief.

Professor Ruth Wolff (Juliet Stevenson) is director of a private medical institute and chair of the executive committee. The teenage patient under her supervision is dying and a priest arrives on behalf of the girl’s parents who are away to administer the last rites as ordained by the Catholic faith. Wolff, the daughter of Jewish parents, refuses the priest entry because she deems it not to be in the best interest of the patient, who would then become aware that she is dying. Wolff is determined to protect the girl’s best interests. The priest is determined to administer the last rites.  Christian belief confronts secular ethics as a Christian servant of his God struggles to overcome the  principled obstinacy of the doctor. During the struggle, the patient dies, condemned in the Catholic faith to denial of forgiveness before God. Such is Schnitzler’s and Icke’s catalyst for a more profound examination of ethics and morals, enveloped in fierce debate and conflicting opinion.
Anni Domingo as Cyprian, Jamie Parker as The Priest and
 Juliet Stevenson as Professor Ruth Wolff in The Doctor

Public opinion swells in antagonistic ugliness and vitriol at the news of the case. A belligerent father (Jamie Parker) threatens hell on earth for a doctor who believes that she was rightfully performing her duty independent of any religious belief. Dr. Hardiman (Naomi Wirthner) seizes the opportunity to grasp power and position and the eventual resignation of the doctor.  Even her former student and now Minister for Health turns against her in the face of public reaction fueled by anti semitism, casting Wolff adrift to face the consequence of her solitary action alone.

So, why am I angry? One reason is the sheer power of Icke’s direction and the forceful clarity of his script. Another is the outstanding performances of a cast, utterly committed to the essential premise of a play that searingly exposes the failings of human nature and illogical opinion couched in meaningless semantic. It is the dangerous province of idiocy. And finally, I recoil at two particular scenes – the first an executive committee meeting steeped in malicious intent and calculated manipulation and the second a  live television debate which is no more than an inquisition in which Wolff is subjected to trial by prejudice.  The scenes disturb not only because of their dramatic force, but because of the truth that they reveal.
Liv Hill as Sami. Juliet Stevenson as Ruth Wolff in 
Robert Icke's production of The Doctor

In a stellar cast, Stevenson gives a formidable performance, charting the downfall of a tragic heroine, blinded by her fatal flaw and propelled upon a path to her irrevocable and tragic fate.  Stevenson charts Wolff’s emotional journey of ultimate awareness. No Lear this and yet the stuff of tragedy. Stevenson’s Ruth Wolff is a performance of greatness not to be missed.

Icke’s decision to cast at times against gender in the case of the ghost of Ruth’s lover Charlie (a beautifully understated and subtle performance by Joy Richardson)  or Wirthner’s conniving Hardiman or ethnicity in the case of Chris Colquhoun”s Jewish colleague and supporter, Copley may unsettle more possibly in the tradition of Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt. It does nothing to detract and possibly enhances our readiness to judge. Icke’s contemporary analysis of Schnitzler’s insight into our flawed humanity is this year’s theatrical jewel in the Adelaide Festival’s crown.