THE DOCTOR Thrills At The Armory — Review
Last summer, English theatrical wunderkind Robert Icke brought his renditions of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Aeschylus’ The Oresteia across the pond to New York’s Park Avenue Armory. Performed in repertory, both starkly modern stagings struck at the emotional cores of the respective texts while expertly teasing out their contemporary relevance. Icke’s Oresteia in particular was a monumental achievement, thrilling for every second of its four hour runtime.
Disclaimer: if you did not feel similarly enthralled by Hamlet or Oresteia then you are unlikely to enjoy The Doctor, Icke’s latest transfer which opened at the Armory this Wednesday. It is most definitely more of the same: austere staging, extended ethical debates and, of course, an unexpectedly inserted pop song. Even the long silver table and benches at the stage’s center look, at first glance, like they were directly transplanted from Hildegard Bechtler’s Oresteia set.
The extra challenge that Icke set himself with The Doctor is telling a present-day story. Set in the England of today, Icke’s text is a loose adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s Professor Bernhardi, a rarely performed study of antisemitism and medical ethics. As in Schnitzler’s version, the story concerns a doctor refusing a priest entry to a young dying girl’s hospital room. The doctor’s stated reason is that his arrival could cause the patient, who does not realize she is dying, undue anguish in her final moments. The Doctor follows an ensuing controversy which engulfs the physician’s life – though here, Icke ties social media and online cycles of “cancellation” into that narrative.
The play inevitably echoes Todd Field’s 2022 film Tár, though it actually came first (The Doctor premiered at the Almeida in 2019, then transferred to the West End in 2022). The goals are similar. Field and Icke are both intent on forcing some nuance back into our conversations around race, sexuality and individual responsibility.
“I’m not part of any group,” insists Professor Ruth Wolff (an extraordinary Juliet Stevenson), who insists her decision arose from medical ethics alone. Icke unpacks, with unsparing precision, all the ways in which she is right, and so very wrong, and every tricky in-between. He skewers our increasing cultural dependency on divisions and labels, but is equally brutal in tearing up Ruth’s insistence that a set of professional standards can stand above any and all unconscious bias.
Audience members tittered at lines invoking identity politics, particularly a scene in which a set of intellectuals wrangled over a definition of “woke,” but they were missing the point. Icke isn’t punching down on anyone – that is brand of high-mindedness (or hubris, to put it in more classical terms) is precisely Wolff’s downfall. Much as in Bruce Norris’ brilliant Downstate last year, the point is the trickiness, the maddening thorniness of questions near unanswerable.
If Icke’s dialogue captures that thorniness perfectly, his central theatrical device has more mixed success. The play’s casting jumbles race, sex and age. Dialogue reveals that a colleague of Wollf’s, played by a Black woman, is in fact a white man; or that a cis-presenting teenager is a trans woman; or, that the priest who was barred entry, played by a white actor, is Black. The idea is to subvert and challenge surface-level assumptions. When it works, it casts past scenes in a new and more complex light, as with Wolff’s treatment of the priest. But in group scenes where it’s hard to track who is playing against race/gender and who isn’t, the device can start to feel a bit goofy.
It also risks undermining Icke’s exploration of antisemitism in England, a growing debate which he refreshingly tackles as an intense cultural crisis (it has simmered, underacknowledged, in British society for many years). Icke does not transmute religious identities as he does others, which is part of the point. Belief systems are a key part of our selves, but they are not visible in the way other identifiers might be. Yet amidst the second act’s many intriguing concerns, Wolff’s Jewishness ultimately gets lost in the shuffle.
A concluding conversation between Wolff and the priest, meanwhile, does not quite land. It is meant to be a bridging of the gap, two people putting the firestorm aside and speaking as individuals. But that notion of, “If only we could just talk to each other,” feels too pat for this play. There’s no resolution to be found in Wolff’s story, and that’s okay. The questions are plenty nourishing.
The Doctor is now in performance at the Park Avenue Armory through August 19, 2023. For tickets and more information, visit here.