Review by Daz Gale
It’s been a long wait since we last saw The Doctor but following a critically acclaimed run at the Almeida Theatre in 2019, it begins a short residency in the West End following a brief UK tour. But what is the prognosis of this much talked about production? The Doctor will see you now.
The premise of The Doctor sees Doctor Ruth Wolff (Juliet Stevenson) embroiled in a nightmare after a 14 year old girl dies. A seemingly inconsequential split second decision leads to surprising repercussions and proved the subject for heavy debate in a play that discusses some deeply serious and distressing themes including racism, abortion and suicide.
Olivier award winner Juliet Stevenson returns to the role she was lauded for 3 years ago, delivering a true masterclass performance. Beginning as a brash and clipped professional, Ruth Wolff unravels to reveal many different sides to her, so by the end we have a firm understanding of what makes her tick. Juliet is absolutely mind-blowing in a vital performance that manages to remain emotive even while she is keeping up a hard façade. A truly exhausting performance, Juliet really must be commended for her commitment to the role which sees her remain on the stage throughout the whole play – even during the interval.
Juliet Stevenson is the only character whose description fits the role she is playing. The remainder of the performers on stage have all been cast against type so they are playing people of different races and genders to that of who their characters are described as. This may seem confusing at first but eventually it all begins to make sense. The Doctor deals with the idea of peoples identities, how they are seen and any unconscious bias we might have with the idea of race, religion and gender popping up time and time again. Casting against type for these roles is a stroke of genius and really hits home the themes so they become even more thought-provoking.
Some of the other cast members double up on roles in both of the vastly different acts which moves from the hospital to a debate on a TV show. Naomi Worthner fantastically embodies the unsavoury nature of the problematic Hardiman, Chris Osikanlu Colquhouns impassioned speech in the first act is an undoubted highlight and among the best feats of acting on that stage while John Mackay makes the most of limited stage time with two incredibly memorable and well performed roles as “Father”. Matilda Tucker brings a different element to the production as the mysterious Sami, Mariah Louca shines as Rebecca, while Preeya Kalidas is as fantastic as ever as Flint.
Juliet Stevenson isn’t the only star that makes The Doctor such a gripping watch. The other star goes to the writing itself. Robert Icke’s writing is multifaceted – full of immeasurable depth and is often uncomfortable in the way it forces society to take a look at itself. While other play have talked about the theme of identity including race, gender and sexuality to varying degrees of success, I would argue none have managed to do is as beautifully and impactful as Robert manages with The Doctor. Constantly captivating dialogue that argues multiple sides of the debate, leaving you completely consumed no matter what your own personal feelings on some of the topics are. Urgent, crucial and unflinching, the writing never lets up leaving you struggling to catch your breath on a relentless yet pacey 2 and a half hours of dialogue.
Robert Icke also directs the production, with a great use of space and a relatively cold but accurate set design from Hildgard Bechtler including a great use of a revolve. Music plays a surprising key part in The Doctor with a drummer elevated above the stage, adding a certain punchiness to the scenes. Music and sound design from Tom Gibbons paired with lighting from Natasha Chivers creates a fantastic atmospheric setting managing that is both in keeping with the hospital setting while remaining distinctly theatrical.
It’s the exposition of its themes that really allows The Doctor to elevate itself to something incredibly special. A supposedly clear-cut situation is explored so thoroughly, you start to question what it is you saw yourself. The idea of identities and how others are portrayed raises some interesting questions and may even make people in the audience challenge their own world views, while the repeated debate of medicine versus faith has potentially never been so enthralling, The result is a truly thought provoking and powerful show that stays with you long after you leave the theatre.
If there is nothing like a good show to make you feel better, The Doctor is the perfect medicine. With thought provoking writing and a ridiculously incredible cast led by Juliet Stevenson in what can only be described as THE performance of the year, The Doctor really is as good as it gets. Urgent, uncomfortable and just overall unbelievably good – this is as unmissable as theatre gets.
The Doctor is a show that can simultaneously make you sweat and give you the chills. One of the greatest shows I have had the pleasure to see this year - if not ever, this really is just what the doctor ordered.
The Doctor plays at The Duke of York’s Theatre until December 11th.
Photos by Manuel Harlan