‘This is some of the best writing I’ve seen in a long time’: Robert Icke’s production of The Doctor at the Adelaide Festival leaves Robert Reid transfixed and enthralled
Warning: spoilers abound
In the great (long) English tradition of talking-head drama, director Robert Icke’s adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s 1912 play Professor Bernhardi takes an inciting event as the key to unleashing debate about a particular social issue. He then spins from it various related issues while ratcheting up the pressure on the character at the centre of it all. In the case of The Doctor, presented in Adelaide by major London theatre Almeida, the debate is science (specifically medicine) versus religion. It’s an old favourite as controversial debates go but it makes for prize fight-level excitement.
The program notes by Rob Bath describe Schnitzler’s play as having been “banned outright by the Nazis during the 1930s and 40s. Deemed – ironically perhaps – by its author as a ‘comedy of character’, the play explores anti-Semitism and Austrian Jewish identity. Set in 1900 Vienna, where Jewish physician Professor Oskar Bernhardi is director of a private teaching medical clinic, the plot turns on his decision not to allow a priest to give the last rites to a Christian patient who is close to death.” Bath goes on to say that this adaptation “thrusts Schnitzler’s confronting concept into this century, where the issues are alarmingly similar.” And that’s exactly what it does.
‘I’m basically riveted from the first few minutes to the end’
Professor Ruth Wolff (Juliet Stevenson), the archetypal brilliant, iconoclastic doctor, is founding director of the Elizabeth Hospital which is dedicated to finding a cure for Alzheimer’s. She finds herself rapidly embroiled in a scandal over the death of a young girl in her care who has been refused the Catholic ceremony of Last Rites. As public outcry and private pressure mount, she battles to defend her choices as a doctor, her place on the hospital board, her belief in medicine over faith, her professional pride and the sanctity of her personal life. She is surrounded on all sides by ambition and betrayal as her friends and colleagues one by one abandon her to the wolves of public opinion and scrutiny.
There are some cheesy staging decisions made early on; the cast enter at the beginning in two lines that cross over each other and take up their positions around the table, then cross the stage to collect props, weaving between each other and exiting again. It’s a little bit undergraduate and my heart starts to sink. I also don’t really understand what the live drummer (Hannah Ledwidge) adds to the piece, hovering over the stage in a sound-proofed booth, especially as when they aren’t playing, the music continues on in their place and can’t really be distinguished from the real thing.
But the then text begins, and I’m basically riveted from the first few minutes to the end. I’m so often ahead of a play from the beginning, so often can tell what the next scene will be, what the next movement will be, hell, what the next line is going to be (that’s not a boast about how great I think I am, more evidence that I’ve seen a great many plays and so many of them fall into predictable patterns after a while.) It never even occurs to me to do that with this play. It stays just exactly where I am with it, keeping pace with me all the way, engrossing me in the argument, the characters and the wider implications of the action. It is three hours long with interval and I don’t notice the time pass for a second. I doubt anyone else does either. There are oohs and ahhs and gasps all around the theatre as the story twists and evolves. There is a fair bit of shifting around in the seats in act one – the Dunstan play house seating is unforgivably in need of oiling – but by the second act even these are silenced. We are rapt, unmoving: maybe not even breathing.
In the first minutes the patient, a 14 year old girl who has self-administered a partially successful abortion and developed septicaemia as a result, is minutes from death. Her parents are uncontactable, the girl herself is in-and-out of consciousness, and Wolff is confronted by the arrival of a priest (Jamie Parker) who is demanding access to the child. Her parents are Catholic and so, the priest claims, is the girl. Wolff refuses the priest entry on the premise that the girl does not know she is dying and that the priest’s presence will not only alert her to the fact but also fill her final moments with terror.
The priest, and some of the other doctors who have gathered around the escalating conflict outside the door of the patient’s room, make the argument that giving him access and allowing him to perform his sacred duty can do no harm if the girl is about to die anyway. Wolff counters that once the girl realises that she is in fact about to die it will bring on panic that could well hasten her death and at the very least rob her last few moments of any kind of peace. The doctor’s duty to her patient now, Wolff maintains, is to ensure the patient’s comfort and, since the patient is (in the doctor’s opinion) not in any condition to make her own beliefs and wants known, she can’t simply accept the word of the priest that this is what she would want.
‘Wolff maintains that she has only ever judged people by the sole criteria of being the best doctor, the best one for the job; but of course isn’t that how nepotism and bigotry are always defended?’
When the priest insists and attempts to enter the room anyway, things turn quickly physical (we’re not shown the actual moment of contact as there is a brief pause and a lighting change that leaves it to the audience to decide how violent the encounter was). A junior doctor (Millicent Wong) has slipped into the patient’s room and comes out to report that the girl has realised she’s dying and is panicked in just the way Wolff had feared. Within seconds, as chaos and shouting reigns outside the room, it’s too late and the girl has gone. And then we’re off and running.
From here much of the first act takes place in the board room of the hospital. There is contention over an upcoming position as well as funding to be secured for the construction of a new building for the hospital. Wolff is not universally liked by the other staff and there are several of her colleagues with grievances that seem to stem from professional jealousy or thwarted personal ambition. They, along with the hospital’s PR manager Roberts (Mariah Louca), argue these issues around a long table as the crisis the hospital has been thrown into in the first minutes of the play begins to worsen exponentially.
As the doctors race to catch up with the growing shitstorm, the racial and religious issues that have been boiling just underneath the surface at the Elizabeth hospital for years begin to surface. Dr. Hardiman (Naomi Wirthner) and Dr Murphy (Daniel Rabin) are the most openly critical of the culture they say Wolff has encouraged in the hospital, consciously preferencing the appointment of women over men, white people over people of colour and Jewish over Christian staff and accusing her doing so because she’s a woman, white and Jewish. Wolff maintains that she has only ever judged people by the sole criteria of being the best doctor, the best one for the job; but of course isn’t that how nepotism and bigotry are always defended? The privilege inherent in her position is painfully and expertly unpacked in the second act, but we’ll come to that in a moment.
Prof Wolff is not exactly an unlikable character, though she is somewhat supercilious and generally unliked by the hospital staff. She’s that maverick leader, convinced of her own authority and rectitude, who stands firm by her principals and is damned by the foibles of personality. The iconoclastic, almost anti-hero, doctor trope so familiar from House’s Dr House, ER’s Dr Romano, MASH’s Dr Winchester, Ben Casey’s Dr Casey, even Scrubs’ Dr Cox. It is nice to see this role played by a woman for once.
The tension keeps building around her. An online petition grows from a few tens of signatories to many thousands calling for her removal, which grows into attacks on social media (which early on is easily dismissed by Wolff and her allies as beneath their contempt), to racially motivated attacks on her in her home. There are shouts of “murderer” and banging on her door, rocks thrown through her windows, a swastika painted on her car and the murder of her cat on her doorstep. They all reflect the rising tensions in the world that have been released along the ancient lines of which God you’ve given your faith to. We see only a few moments of Wolff at home in this first act: we are let into her personal life very gradually, her partner Charlie (Joy Richardson) and the teenage girl, Sami (Liv Hill) whom Wolff has befriended and is a kind of proxy daughter. I notice that Charlie and Sami never interact, so its quickly apparent that Charlie is a memory or a ghost.
This brings me to the cross-racial and cross-gender casting of the production. Some, but not all I think, of the actors are cast against how they present. There are female-presenting actors playing men, white actors playing black characters, and vice versa. It throws all kinds of unexpected ambiguities into the characters. Charlie is a good example. I don’t think it’s ever specified if Charlie is male or female (or neither) but the character is played by Joy Richardson and it’s strongly suggested that Wolff is gay. It’s hard to not read this into characters from the actual physical presence of the actors on stage and when, early on, Roberts (the PR manager) suggests that it might make things easier if Wolff were out as a lesbian. Charlie makes a point that, at first blush before we realise this is a memory, seems to suggest the same. “Maybe it’s time you told them about me,” Charlie says. But Wolff refuses to allow it, adamant that her private life and professional life be kept separate.
These ambiguities are a bit like red herrings and I find myself brought up time and time again, as an actor who presents as female is revealed to be playing a male character, or an actor who presents as white turns out to be playing a person of colour. It in no way changes the strength of these performances, but it does keep reminding me that people are not always as they present and that to read a person semiotically on stage (and indeed in real life) is to apply a simplistic lens to our humanity.
I’m happy to get past it when it’s a woman playing a man, or when it’s a person of colour playing someone who is white, but when a white actor is revealed to be playing a black character, it pulls me up on my assumptions. It shows me over and over again that while I’m prepared to read complexity into women and people of colour, I’m still reading male whiteness as male whiteness; which suggests that it’s still too easy to assume white male is the default. I’m not sure if this is written into the text or if it’s a directorial/casting decision, but it’s frankly brilliant. It bypasses my woke self-assuredness to show that there’s still work to be done.
Maybe there always will be, I certainly think for my generation at least, this is going to be a never ending process of deconstructing our cultural imprinting. There’s a particular moment when one of the doctors who is a person of colour played by a white-presenting actor accuses one of the other doctors who claims to be a person of colour, and is played by a person of colour (also a female presenting actor playing a male character) of not really being a person of colour because, despite the characters grandmother being from Nigeria, they still present as white! The internecine racisms of semiotic assumptions are so complex and nuanced and labyrinthine in just this moment alone that I’m left mind blown trying just to get my white-blinded brain around it.
‘It keeps reminding me that people are not always as they present and that to read a person semiotically on stage (and indeed in real life) is to apply a simplistic lens to our humanity’
As we head to the foyer for interval, the audience is buzzing with debate. So far it’s done what good theatre – good mainstream theatre anyway – should do and that’s get people talking. Arguing with their friends over who is right, what viewpoints there are, what the wider issues are. Not a single group I pass is talking about what they’re gonna have for dinner afterwards, or how good a given (famous) actor is. Maybe that’s luck and I just happen to pass the ones who are engaged, but I don’t think so.
In the second act, the ethical and process-driven issues of how a hospital treats its patients and the right of doctors to make decisions on behalf of those patients are replaced by the undoing of Wolff. She has been tightly bound through-out the first act, holding firm to her faith in medicine, her strength as a leader, her integrity; but after she has been forced to resign as chair of the hospital board, and even take leave from her job as a practicing doctor at the end of act one, she returns to face the criticism of a panel of experts on a TV debate program (not unlike an interrogative Q and A.) Wolff has early on proven herself a pedant with regard to how words are used, constantly correcting her colleagues at work and Sami at home, about the use of words like “literally”, and “like”, smugly adding the caveat that it only matters if you care at all about language.
The second act begins with an anxiety-driven tirade directed at Sami about the confusion of using “literally” to mean “figuratively”, as perpetrated by the younger generation. This draws the biggest laugh of the show and indeed a thunderously approving round of applause. “Yes”, says this applause, “the old standards of language are being eroded and we applaud their defence. Hear hear!” The reaction is telling – even more so when the TV debate experts receive derisive laughter when they state their cases against Wolff’s actions. There is the same laughter when one character introduces herself as a professor of post-colonial studies (Anni Domingo), the same when the lawyer (Wong) who is an expert on how language is used to reinforce racial and social divides that give the rich white woman doctor the privilege to define herself, but makes that same right to self-determination for people of colour a constant battle.
I’m genuinely surprised by this laughter at first, as these all seem like perfectly reasonable and valid points to me, but as I look around the room at the people laughing and see it’s almost all grey-haired, middle class white people, I realise it’s not really surprising. They’re reading these things as parodies of political correctness designed to be triumphed over by the good doctor. The audience’s own prejudice and privilege is very much on display and being paraded before them. They don’t recognise what’s about to happen, but I do.
The expert on post-colonial studies points out that the doctor has called the priest, whom we have discovered is a person of colour being played by a white actor, “uppity.” There is an audio recording of the confrontation in which she can clearly be heard shouting that he shouldn’t get uppity with her. Wolff responds with confusion that she didn’t intend to cause offense by saying he was uppity – it’s just a word that described his behaviour, as unruly and above his station – but the expert argues that it is not Wolff’s intent that this being questioned. There is a history attached to that word, despite Professor Wolff claiming that words are just words: “uppity” has historically been used in conjunction with another word, a poisonous word that she won’t use on the program, but that she challenges Wolff to call her right now. On national television. If words are, indeed, just words.
‘The audience’s own prejudice and privilege is very much on display and being paraded before them. They don’t recognise what’s about to happen, but I do.’
Wolff stammers to a halting silence. You can see the realisation cross her face, sink deep in: and I wonder if the same is happening around the theatre. I hope so. Wolff refuses to use the word and concedes the point. You might say that the adaption has manipulated this agreement to force Wolff into an untenable position, that it makes a straw man of her; but I think it’s more a matter of twisting the knife into the laughter of the insulated that has come only moments before. Still, when the expert asks if they can expect any kind of apology to be forthcoming, Wolff asks why and is told anything you feel you should apologise for. There is once more laughter, but this time I think a little more subdued and defensive.
I’m not free of my own prejudices either. I will admit there is also an expert on the panel who represents the anti-abortionist movement and I find myself immediately aligned against her. She makes some good points in the argument but seems to me hopelessly medieval. Wolff as good as calls her that at one point. This “expert” proceeds to expose Wolff as having had an abortion herself, and ties to use this as a weapon to discredit her, to claim there’s no way she can be objective in her stance on abortion. Wolff rallies well and, looking back, I wonder if this was the real straw man in the argument. But maybe they’re all straw men, and this one is just meant for someone like me.
During this interrogation, Wolff in an attempt to humanise herself presumably, has outed Sami as trans. My heart sinks, because it’s such a public betrayal of the young friend who until now has been one of the few glints of humanity we’ve seen from Wolff. Sami’s her only real friend, and she throws her under the bus without a thought. This is the only time I can see ahead to what is coming, and it duly arrives a few moments later when Wolff returns home. She finds her certificates smashed on the floor and the furious and betrayed teen in her home, telling her in no uncertain terms that their friendship is over, that the doctor is nothing without her certificates, and the she hopes Wolff dies. “Literally”.
Ultimately Wolff is disbarred after an official enquiry into her actions, she’s branded and broken. There is the beginnings of a rapprochement in the final scene when the priest visits her in her home. They talk and, in a way, he hears her confession without offering absolution. They show that they can each see each other’s position – he’s more than a dog collar and she’s more than a lab coat, and they are both human after all. She finally tells her story about her lost love, Charlie, the ghost that has been haunting the stage around her, lost to the very disease she’s been striving to cure all these years. The conversation she remembers in the first act, Charlie saying she should tell the hospital about their relationship, resolves into being about Charlies Alzheimer’s, not their sexuality.
Wolff describes the devastating effect of the disease, the loss of memory, of identity and presence that Alzheimer’s wreaks in people’s lives. In a flood of sharing, she explains that to Charlie, in the few lucid moments left to them, suicide seems like the only way out. She tells how she’d seen the plastic bag, an “exit hood”, out for days without really noticing it, perhaps not letting herself know what it was intended for. How she returned home to find the kettle, a symbol that has been established early on a sign of security, love and sanctuary, now cold and the bag gone. There isn’t a sound in the theatre now.
Of course this has been the driving personal factor of her refusal to give an inch, to surrender even a little of her power. I can’t help but think all along that her courage in the face of public outrage is only a façade of pride pretending to strength, which masks deep, deep pain and personal loss. Yes, the people on the internet are uninformed and destructive; yes, the religious communities seem archaic and ridiculous to those who are without faith or have given their faith other shapes. Wolff herself describes doctors as being a kind of witch, telling Sami in act one that they still prescribe certain herbs or bits of bark to cure pain, poor sleep, a hunched back, only under different names and in pill form or injections. The medical profession today, she says, will seem hopelessly superstitious to that of the future.
‘I can’t help but think all along that her courage in the face of public outrage is only a façade of pride pretending to strength, which masks deep, deep pain and personal loss.’
If she’d only been able to bend a little, to allow for other people to have their faiths as well, to see beyond her own belief in medicine and her own unshakable faith in her infallibility – no, that’s not fair, her faith in the infallibility of medicine – then none of this need have happened; but she is still too broken from the loss of Charlie. To bend at any point is to invite shattering into a million pieces, which in the end is what the world forces on her anyway.
Stevenson as Professor Wolff is electrifying. It’s impossible to tear my eyes away from the drama unfolding on stage and her performance is at the heart of that. She commands the space totally: her strength, the power of her voice as she orders the squabbling board members to sit down and demands they follow the proper procedures for a board meeting are the essence of the characters charmless “Jerk Doctor” charm. Of course, she loses control of the board anyway, and everything is gradually taken away from her, bit by bit, until she is a weeping broken human mess at the end. Wolff’s acceptance and confession of her humanity is nothing short of gripping.
People are in floods of tears as we leave the theatre, comforting each other as the house lights come back up. With COVID 19 continuing its spread across the globe and Trump claiming it’s all a democratic hoax, the issues at the heart of The Doctor seem all the more urgent. There’s so much more that I could talk about.
It made me think of the Eurocentriism – nay, the Anglocentricism – of the Melbourne Theatre Company. It seems to me that if they must keep importing new works from overseas in preference to expanding the place for Australian writers – and it seems fairly obvious from recent programming that they still do – then they should bring this kind of play. Melbourne needs to see this play. Hell, everyone does. I really can’t overstate how engrossing, intelligent and important it is. This is some of the best writing I’ve seen in a long time.
The Doctor, by Robert Icke after Arthur Schnitzler, directed by Robert Icke. Set and costume design by Hildegard Bechtler, lighting design by Natasha Chivers, sound and composition by Tom Gibbons. Performed by Chris Colquhoun, Shelly Conn, Anni Domingo, Liv Hill, Hannah Ledwidge, Mariah Louca, Jamie parker, Daniel Rabin, Joy Richardson, Juliet Stevenson, Naomi Wirthner and Millicent Wong. Dunstan Playhouse, Adelaide Festival Centre. Almeida Theatre at the Adelaide Festival. Until March 8. Bookings
Wheelchair accessible. Hearing assistance.