Robert Icke ends his long and fruitful association with the Almeida (Hamlet, Uncle Vanya, Oresteia, 1984 to name a few) with this “freely” adapted version of Arthur Schnitzler’s 1912 play Professor Bernhardi.
Juliet Stevenson plays Professor Ruth Wolff, the head of a private medical institute, who finds herself at the centre of a PR storm when she refuses to allow a priest to administer the last rites to a teenager who is is dying from sepsis after a self-administered abortion.
Wolff likes to be “crystal clear” about what she thinks – it’s a phrase she uses multiple times – and she’s a stickler for the precise use of language. What’s so clever about Icke’s play is that things are not crystal clear at all. It constantly forces you to reassess everything you see and hear. A character may say they are a particular sex or colour, but that’s not what’s in front of you.
There’s a strangeness about many of the earlier scenes – such as Wolff’s conversations with her partner (Joy Richardson) and the teenager in her house (Ria Zmitrowicz) – which only start to make sense towards the end.
Stevenson, in her white coat, is a rivetting presence. Her performance seems to becomes more powerful as her character becomes increasingly vulnerable.
The play explores anti-semitism, faith versus science, personal versus public interest, gender politics, freedom of choice and above all – the concept of identity.
The second act brings this into sharp focus in gripping scene in which Professor Wolff is quizzed in a live TV debate. Except it’s more like a witch trial (in an earlier scene Wolff says “doctors are witches in white”). This being an Icke play, it’s no surprise that this involves the use of a camera and big screen projections onto Hildegard Bechtler’s suitably clinical set.
Stevenson is utterly spellbinding throughout, and there’s strong support from Zmitrowicz, Mariah Louca as the hospital’s press officer, Nathalie Armin as Health Minster Jemima Flint and Paul Higgins as the priest.
My final diagnosis? It’s just what the doctor ordered.
The Doctor is at the Almeida Theatre until 28 September 2019