Adelaide Festival Review: The Doctor

Where: Dunstan Playhouse
When: until 8 March
Tickets: here

Professor Ruth Wolff (Juliet Stevenson) is equal parts respected and feared by her peers. She’s a brilliant but fierce doctor, the director of the Elizabeth Institute, a private hospital specialising in dementia research. The play swings in the balance of an interaction that happens within the first 5 minutes. 

Ruth is treating Emily, a 14 year old girl, who has sepsis from a botched illegal abortion she tried to do at home. She is close to dying, but is hallucinating, peaceful for the moment. A priest arrives, explaining he’s there at the request of Emily’s parents who are on a plane on the way to the hospital, and he’s there to perform last rites, a Catholic sacrament. Ruth refuses: I don’t know who you are, we don’t know if Emily is even Catholic, she’s peaceful now and seeing you will distress her. There is an altercation, and Emily dies before the priest is allowed to enter. This issue explodes, dividing the nation and the doctors at the hospital.

Written by playwright Robert Icke and presented by London’s Almeida Theatre, The Doctor is loosely adapted from Arthur Schnitzel’s Professor Bernhardi (1912). Icke has brought the play into the 21st century in this adaptation, a time where debates on religion, gender, race, and identity play out bigger than before, capturing a firestorm of people through the internet. In shifting this play to the present, Icke has perfectly captured this moment in time. 

Playing with notions of race and gender, most of the actors are playing characters that don’t look like them, with Ruth the one exception. For example, the only black male actor is playing a white, Jewish man and most of the female actors are playing male doctors. It keeps you on your toes, with the automatic assumptions that you make based on what one actor looks like turn out to be incorrect.

Alongside these ethical questions about identity, social media and the internet are an integral part of this story. What starts as a  small incident in a small hospital throws the country into mayhem. The bulk of the play takes place over around a week, reflecting the way that issues go viral. Everything is a fight, conversations are circular, and people’s words are studied for how they can be used against them.

The play is driven by drummer, Hannah Lewidge, who sits hovering above the stage, and lit from all angles. Hannah is integral to holding the tension, playing live in accompaniment to the performance. Alongside a simple set and powerful lighting, I’m kept on the edge of my seat as words are fired back and forth across the stage to the beat of the drums.

Icke has produced a masterpiece. It’s an intense and often funny play full of unlikeable characters. But it is a play for our time, capturing the moment that is 2020. 

5 out of 5  stars

Natalie Carfora

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