The Doctor, Duke of York’s Theatre, 2022
Photo by Manuel HarlanJuliet Stevenson
  • Theatre, Drama
  • Recommended


‘The Doctor’ review

4 out of 5 stars

Visionary director Robert Icke returns as Juliet Stevenson reprises her colossal 2019 performance


Time Out says

Although I’m a fully paid member of the Robert Icke fan club, I didn’t love the wunderkind writer-director’s last UK play when I saw it in 2019. ‘The Doctor’ got rapturous reviews, but coming at the end of the extraordinary run of plays that he made while working for the Almeida Theatre, I thought it lacked the gut-punch emotional wallop of his best work, a bit more head than heart.

But in the ‘10s we were spoiled by a constant stream of Icke’s work. Three years on, and the West End transfer of ‘The Doctor’ is the first London has heard from him since the last time it was on stage – partly the pandemic, but largely because he’s been working elsewhere. He’s also seemingly stopped doing interviews, and national press weren’t allowed to see his recent regional touring production of ‘Animal Farm’ (brilliant, according to my mum).

In this context, it’s bloody good to have ‘The Doctor’ back. It clicked with me more the second time. But also it’s a simple case of not appreciating what you’ve got until it’s gone. And Icke has been gone too long.

‘The Doctor’ is an extremely full-on rewrite of Austrian dramatist Arthur Schnitzel’s 1912 drama ‘Professor Bernhardi’, which you’d be forgiven for not being familiar with because it hasn’t had a proper UK production in decades. 

Juliet Stevenson stars as the imperious Professor Ruth Wolff, an eminent secular Jewish doctor and founder of a pioneering dementia research institute. As the play begins, it’s clear from the chatter of Wolff’s colleagues that she is not entirely beloved, and no wonder – she is almost monstrously dedicated to her job. Despite her acerbic humour, she views the world purely through the prism of her profession; she sincerely aspires to have no identity beyond being a doctor, almost regarding herself as an instrument rather than a person. 

But after she impulsively brings a 14-year-old girl dying of a botched abortion into the institute, she bars a Catholic priest sent to administer last rites - nominally because the patient doesn’t know she’s dying. The priest gets angry; Wolff gets angry; the girl dies. It looks like we’re being set up for a spicy medical ethics drama. But then Icke starts pulling the rug from under us as it’s revealed that the other actors – Stevenson excepted – have been cast against the gender and/or race of the character they’re playing. We only learn their characters’ identities through careful dialogue reveals, and almost every one of them substantially complicates the fraught situation. 

It’s a supremely ballsy bit of stagecraft that both chimes with the play’s fascination with identity, and also keeps us on our toes. A story that might be predictable if we fully understood who all the characters were from the off instead remains grippingly twisty. 

Still, it’s markedly less moving than other great Icke works like ‘Oresteia’ or ‘Hamlet’. Stevenson is magnificent as Wolfe, but she’s so Teflon-coated in the first half that it’s hard to exactly feel sorry for her. And though Icke has smartly linked a 110-year-old play with modern ideas of cancel culture, I’m not exactly clear about what he’s trying to say about it. Or in fact, I think he’s deliberately equivocating. Wolff is shown to be the victim of vested interests, with most of those who condemn her having some other axe to grind: few sincerely care about original incident. But then, they’re not entirely wrong about her - her belief she is simply a detached medical machine is of course absurd.

It’s a magnificently tense production, with a superb live drum soundtrack from musician Hannah Ledwidge, perched theatrically up above the stage. 

And it finally does engage the heart with the tender final scene, in which Stevenson’s Wolfe and John Mackay’s Priest come face to face again and have a long, candid chat about how their callings have shaped their lives. She also confesses the truth about her partner Charlie (Juliet Garricks) – an enigmatic, confused figure who only seems to exist in Wolff’s home. It’s a beautiful scene, both for the sad revelations it contains but also the quiet delicacy of Stevenson’s performance after her earlier stridency. It gently wrongfoots you by not being a moan about woke mobs at all, but a hushed consideration of the need for self-understanding.

Hopefully a new Icke play will follow soon enough. But for now, it’s bloody good to have him back in any form - there’s simply nobody else in British theatre like him.


£15-£99.50. Runs 2hr 50min
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