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Review: The Doctor at Almeida Theatre, Adelaide Festival

Review By Rosie Niven

Lying in hospital and dying from sepsis, a 14 year old girl is ignorant about her fate. So when a priest arrives to administer last rites, the girl’s Doctor refuses him entry to the room. What follows is an intense discussion about who trumps who - do medical professionals get the final say? Who decides what the patient would have wanted?

The complex moral debate is the first of many challenging discussions that arise throughout Robert Icke’s adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s hundred-year-old play, The Doctor. The Doctor in question here is protagonist Ruth Wolff (known by her colleagues as BB, or ‘The Big Bad Wolff’), Director of a medical institute and Doctor in charge of a young girl dying after a botched home abortion. The priest states that the girl’s parents, devout Catholics, sent him to the hospital to appease her of her mortal sins so that she could still go to Heaven. Nowhere on her medical forms does it state that the girl is a Catholic, or that she would want a priest in the room with her should she pass away. Wolff’s argument is this - if the girl herself isn’t Catholic, why should her parents get the final say of how she spends her last moments? If she doesn’t know she’s going to die, why should we burst that bubble by bringing in a priest and cementing her fate?

It’s two-and-a-half hours of moral dilemmas from Icke, and this is just the beginning. The priest records the remains of the conversation between himself and Wolff, where she lays a hand on him to stop him from entering the room. Combined with the girl’s death before the priest can visit her, the first ten minutes of this play will have you on the edge of your seat. As is the modern age, the news of this altercation spreads like wildfire, and recordings, online petitions and threats start to circulate on the web, calling for Wolffe’s immediate resignation.

The strength of this adaptation is its ability to take a story set in 1910 and move it so effortlessly into the modern world. In the light of movements such as Scott Morrison’s Religious Discrimination Bill, this work could not be more timely. The adaptation overwhelms us with contemporary zeitgeist as we explore layer upon layer of ‘what do you think?’ and ‘what would you do?’, intersecting discussions about religion with other avenues of discrimination. By making the protagonist female (and keeping her partner female), we get to explore the violent backlash to Wolff through a misogynistic and homophobic lens. By making the priest black, new discussions about microaggressions and racial bias emerge. These continued discussions bring the work to life and have the audience discussing the show days after they’ve let their seats.

Of course, no great story is complete without a stellar team of performers, and it’s clear why Adelaide Festival wanted to get their hands on the Australian Exclusive of The Doctor. Fantastic performances across the board keep this story sharp through almost three hours of sitting at the Dunstan Playhouse, which is a notable feat in itself, but the true star of this is Juliet Stevenson, the woman who Icke adapted the role of Wolff for. She’s central to the entire plot, and remains for almost the entire performance, even staying at the large table throughout the interval. She is harrowing, and powerful, and feels so right as Wolff that it’s difficult to imagine anyone else ever playing the role.

Hildegard Bechtler’s set is brilliantly simple, and perfectly complements the multiple spaces where this show takes place. A single large table, reminiscent of The Last Supper, sits upon a rotating stage that turns ever so slowly during moments of tension. Natasha Chivers’ dynamic lighting cuts through the clean wooden space, and Tom Gibbons’ sound is used sparingly and intelligently. The most engaging sound throughout the piece is the live performance of Hannah Ledwidge on drums, whose beats glide us through transitions or hold us tense during altercations. Suspended above the stage almost God-like, there’s something so exciting about the element of a single instrument mixed with non-diegetic sounds.

The Doctor is an incredibly engaging work that looks at the complexity of identity politics, so complex that it feels almost impossible to address all issues within one review. It slows down a bit in the middle, but aside from this is a work that all heading to the Adelaide Festival should see. A true gem of the 2020 festival, and one that I hope returns to Australia for an extended run (if we can get our hands on Stevenson again).

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All opinions and thoughts expressed within reviews on Theatre Travels are those of the writer and not of the company at large.


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