In his final hurrah as Associate Director of the Almeida, Robert Icke, and Juliet Stevenson team up again, after their successful collaborations on Mary Stuart and Hamlet, for Icke’s take on the 1912 play Professor Bernhadi.
Icke renames this to The Doctor and changes the titular character from a man to a woman, and updates the setting to modern day England – without updating the core story. Stevenson plays Ruth Wolff, a doctor who has founded and now heads up the Elizabeth Institute: an institute about to receive a grant to work on groundbreaking dementia research in a newly built facility.
On the brink of the new build, a young teenage girl becomes a patient after a failed home abortion has caused her to catch sepsis. Unfortunately, there is nothing Wolff or her team can do to save the girl, and her parents are out of town. Her parents, being practicing Christians, send a priest to the hospital to administer last rites. However, Wolff stops the priest, as she believes that as the girl does not know she is dying, it will cause her too much distress and wants the girl’s final moments to be peaceful. What then begins as a complaint by the girl’s parents and the priest himself, turns into a modern day witch hunt against Wolff.
Wolff; a woman who is Jewish by culture, but not practising; faces anti-semitism, sexism and questions around her personal life and beliefs, as a result. Stevenson handles every scene with finesse and fervour, and genuinely gives one of the best performances of the year so far. The transitions between Wolff’s intertwining personas as a doctor, lover, and mother figure are simply excellent. A true powerhouse, Stevenson showcases her stamina, as she remains on stage for the entirety of the production (including the interval). Her performance is so encapsulating that no matter whether you believe Wolff made the right or wrong decision, you sympathise with her dedication to the medical field – no matter what this has cost her in her personal life.
In the earlier scenes, the supporting cast are excellent, debating how to handle the press and social media attention. Slowly it is unveiled that women are playing men, and black actors are playing white characters and vice versa. It is evident to see Icke’s intentions behind this, and made clear through Naomi Wirthner’s cunningly sly portrayal of Roger and Pamela Nomvete’s bold performance of Brian early on, but it is slightly jarring when Daniel Rabin’s character, Paul, exclaims “as the only black man in the room” when being played by a white actor. Icke’s intention only truly setting in during the second act and feeling slightly unnecessary due to the complex matters addressed by the material alone.
Through Icke’s clever staging of the television debate scene, utilising the intimacy of a camera, Stevenson’s ingenuous facial expressions are shown in their full glory. Natasha Chivers’ lighting design, illuminating Hildegard Bechtler’s simplistically clinical set design and emphasing the godlike affinity Wolff has to her vocation in the harrowing final scenes.
Go for Stevenson’s performance; but stay for the thought provoking material that questions identity and ethics within the modern ‘woke’ world we live in.