Juliet Stevenson in The Doctor at the Almeida Theatre

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

Juliet Stevenson outstanding in Robert Icke’s exposure of populism

Production photo of Juliet Stevenson in The Doctor at the Almeida Theatre London
Juliet Stevenson in The Doctor. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Dr Wolfe, played by Juliet Stevenson, prides herself on being logical and making medical decisions based on facts in a world of irrationality.

Hildegard Bechtler’s stark set is quite a contrast to the detailed oppressiveness of her design for Rosmersholm. Here you have bare pale walls with only a table and benches in the middle, very clinical and hospital-like but also reflecting the cool rationality of the main protagonist.

On this occasion she’s treating a 14 year old girl who has botched a self administered abortion and contracted sepsis. She’s going to die and Dr Wolfe wants her to die peacefully. A Catholic priest turns up expecting to give her the last rites but the doctor doesn’t want her patient disturbed.

Thenceforth this sparkler of an incident turns into a stick of dynamite as the doctor is attacked on all sides: by her colleagues who want her power reduced, by campaigners who seize an opportunity for publicity, by internet trolls who want to vent their anger.

Production photo showing the cast of The Doctor at the Almeida Theatre in London
The Doctor at the Almeida Theatre. Photo: Manuel Harlan

An online petition condemning her gains tens of thousands of signatures from people who know nothing of the case. An anti-abortionist attacks her even though she didn’t carry out an abortion. People abuse her and accuse her of murder. Her Jewish parentage is invoked as a reason for her anti-Catholic behaviour.

Much of the play is about a rational person trying to maintain her position while being besieged by irrational, prejudiced people with their own agendas.

Robert Icke’s clever use of gender and colour blind casting

Writer and director Robert Icke cleverly uses gender and colour blind casting to wrong foot the audience. We don’t see why the doctor should be accused of prejudice until we realise that someone we thought was white was black or someone we saw as a woman is a man, thus underlining that it is the accusers who are prejudiced.

The doctor is drawn into defending herself and, under pressure, she reveals   some prejudice in her own behaviour which leads to irrationality, but in unexpected ways.

Take language. Her pride in her rationality is illustrated by her obsession with the correct use of English. She picks someone up for saying ‘literally’ in a context where it means precisely the opposite. Later she is forced to acknowledge that language is fluid and subjective, when her enemies pick on a seemingly innocuous phrase  as being racist because she used it against a black person.

She also freely admits that her practice of medicine is only the sum of today’s knowledge and could be seen as ignorant and like witchcraft in the future.

The original play on which The Doctor is based is Professor Bernhardi by Arthur Schnitzler. Written a hundred years ago it was a warning against the rise of populism and its use of people’s prejudices as a weapon. These days the tools may be different- social media and TV- but Robert Icke’s new version suggests the tactics of populists remain the same.

Juliet Stevenson gives a five star performance

The Doctor shows how frighteningly easy it is for the rational can be submerged by the irrational. Our protagonist gradually breaks down as she is engulfed by a nightmare. Juliet Stevenson gives a five star performance as she descends from the ramrod stiff leader at the opening through anger to desolation and tears.

The problem for me was that the plot seemed contrived. I didn’t believe that events would turn out this way. Would a senior doctor in dementia take on someone with sepsis from A&E? Would a TV debate really include an anti-abortionist when abortion was not the issue?  Add to which, the other characters seemed like ciphers there simply to make a point.

Production photo of Ria Zmitrowicz and Juliet Stevenson in The Doctor at the Almeida Theatre in London
Ria Zmitrowicz and Juliet Stevenson in The Doctor. Photo: Manuel Harlanliet

The exception was the troubled young person staying with Dr Wolff and who has her private life exposed. only the other week The Sun published a repugnant story which used the name of famous cricketer Ben Stokes as an excuse to write about his parents and a family tragedy that happened before he was even born.  Ria Zmitrowicz was convincingly nervous and vulnerable as she placed her trust in her substitute mother.

A lack of respect for his audience?

I was disappointed in one element of Robert Icke’s direction. There is a point where Juliet Stevenson sits on the front of the stage and has an important confrontation with another character. This was not visible from the Circle where I was sitting. I have worked in a 2000 seat theatre where the directors would go to the back and sides of each of the three levels to ensure that the actors could be seen. It would be surprising if, in a theatre as small as the Almeida with 360 seats and two levels, Mr Icke was unaware that hundreds of ticket buyers would be unable to see this crucial moment.

Remembering the theme of this play, I will admit that I don’t know all the circumstances and I’m not a director. Nevertheless I find it difficult to believe he couldn’t have moved this scene upstage a little. I’m not going to start a Facebook petition or a Twitter campaign but he does appear to be showing a lack of respect for his audience.

Robert Icke is a hugely talented director and while his final production as associate director of the Alemeida Theatre may not be his best, The Doctor is an imaginative, thought provoking work that generates a powerful performance by one of our finest actors.

The Doctor is performing at the Almeida Theatre until 28 September 2019 before transferring to the Duke Of York’s Theatre for a limited run from 20 April 2020.

Click here to watch the YouTube review of The Doctor starring Juliet Stevenson

Hansard starring Lindsay Duncan & Alex Jennings – review

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

Hansard in the Lyttelton Theatre of the National Theatre is what I love about theatre. Forget video screens, background music, special effects. Simply two great actors live on stage telling a story to a live audience. For ninety unbroken minutes this couple bickers and takes swipes at each other until eventually they reveal what’s behind their fractured relationship. It’s art on a human scale.

Production shot from Hansard at the National Theatre with Lindsay Duncan and Alex JenningsAnd what’s amazing is that this is Simon Woods’ first play which makes its perfect structure and precise and funny dialogue all the more remarkable. And there’s confidence in how he handles his audience- he’s even bold enough to make a joke about plays with no interval. 

In case you don’t know, Hansard is the written record of all that is said in Parliament. But it doesn’t tell the full story. This play is about what’s not said. The story behind the legislation. The point where the personal and the political meet.

It’s 1988. Robin, a public schoolboy MP, arrives home for the weekend. His wife Diana seems unprepared for his arrival. She isn’t happy that his government has just passed section 28 which outlaws sympathetic teaching about homosexuality. He’s upset at how wild animals are wrecking his lawn. She lays into him, pretending she thinks he’s talking about what his government is doing to the country. There are many more crowd pleasing snipes at the public schoolboys who run the Conservative government and the country. For example, there’s a joke about how people who keep voting for them are like abused partners. It all sounds so contemporary despite being set 30 years ago. 

It’s clearly familiar ground this couple are going over, a bit like putting on old slippers, neither surprises the other, being amused even by each other’s insults.

Gradually the humour subsides without totally disappearing and the previously unspoken reason for the schism between them is revealed, followed by secrets that are deeply upsetting but show how much they have misunderstood one another in their anger.

I suspect Diana and Robin owe a debt to Edward Albee’s warring couple in Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? but this war of words is less vicious or at least more civilised.

Lindsay Duncan and Alex Jennings convince

Lindsay Duncan and Alex Jennings, directed by Simon Godwin, are top class. He is totally believable as the upper class husband who keeps his emotions battened down and reacts to everything in the modest self-deprecating way of those born to rule. (I was very impressed by his ability to first cook toast on an Aga and then eat it while still projecting his lines to the back of the circle.)

She too is upper class but while she enunciates vowels that could cut glass, her voice is strained by emotion suggesting she is close to the edge. Even so, she is in control enough to toy with her husband and give him sideways looks that could cut steak.

These are convincing characters in a real situation. What implications there are about the way we conduct our politics- her ineffective left wing words, his assumption of his right to govern, the need for understanding and common ground- are very subtly woven in. 

Hildegard Bechtler’s set, a naturalistic kitchen and dining area, uses the often intimidating width of the Lyttelton stage to great effect by bringing down the proscenium arch until it looks even wider, like a letterbox. Which means the warring couple seem at times miles apart. 

You might wonder why 1988, why not now? Certainly much of what is said in the play could refer to today. Common values, tolerance and liberal democracy are once again taking a bashing at the hands of public schoolboys. I guess one answer is that setting it in the past will stop it being dated. But it’s also an important reminder that government backed homophobia was present in Britain only 30 years ago and therefore how recent and possibly fragile gains in LGBT rights are.

Hansard is an excellent and an important play.

Hansard continues at the National Theatre until 25 November 2019 and can be seen at cinemas on 7 November 2019.