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I am a doctor.
So declares Juliet Stephenson, both opening and closing ‘The Doctor’, Robert Icke’s challenging take on a century-old play exploring medical ethics and identity.
She is, of course, brilliant. More convincing as a doctor than I feel most days. Director of a private medical clinic and research centre, she’s a strong leader. Caring. Confident. Authoritative. At least at the start. Her Dr Ruth Wolff, (‘with two f’s’) is big on accuracy and precision, and not so hot on management of a 14-year-old girl with sepsis after a botched home abortion. Which is a shame, really, as what follows is an unstoppable mess of angst and recrimination that ultimately destroys her.
In a mythical present day, where doctors are defined by their white coats, the health minister might pop in to discuss a case, and a 14-year-old girl is allowed to die in a private institute specialising in dementia, Dr Wolff confronts a priest. He’s come to administer the last rites to the dying girl; she wants to child to die in peaceful ignorance of her impending fate. And the seeds of destruction are sewn. Because Dr Wolff is Jewish; the patient is Catholic; and the priest is black.
In 1912, when Arthur Schnitzler wrote ‘Professor Bernhardi’, the medical plot would have made more sense. Schnitzler himself was a doctor before he was a playwright, so he knew what he was talking about. But times have changed.
Nowadays, we expect all the noise, the bells and whistles of the intensive care unit for a patient crashing out in sepsis, and some of the finer details of her medical management are a little disconcerting.
Although Dr Wolff declares ‘It’s not over till there’s a body’, she doesn’t really seem to be doing much. But that’s not really the point. ‘You walk in there like the Grim Reaper and there’s no way in her current condition she can die without panic and distress.’
Dr Wolff is absolutely focused on allowing the girl a peaceful death. In the absence of the parents, Dr Wolff makes a ‘best interests’ decision that will haunt her for the rest of the play and lead to a witch-hunt that will end her career.
Utilitarian ethics abound. Daniel Sokol, the bioethics consultant for The Doctor, has written elsewhere about situations where kindness and maintaining hope might be more important than truth telling, and how ‘first do no harm’ might be better formulated as ‘…no net harm’. Ruth Wolff clearly agrees. Gillick competence and the GMC don’t feature, but the play is packed with issues and perhaps something had to give.
The biggest issue by far is identity.
Icke plays with what initially appears to be gender- and colour-blind casting, till we can’t tell who is supposed to be what, completely wrong-footed and confronted with our own unintentional biases. It’s an uncomfortable feeling.
But Dr Wolff is a constant. More than a little arrogant (‘I didn’t get this title for Christmas’), somewhat feared by her juniors – her nickname is BB, for Big Bad; and totally committed to her patients. She’s in this mess because she fought for what she believed were the best interests of a dying girl. She won’t apologise because she is certain she did nothing wrong. Medicine is her faith.
Wolff is firmly the hero of the play, and identity is the topic. And her identity, as far as she’s concerned, is simple: ‘I’m crystal clear. I’m a doctor.’
But she also tells us that doctors are witches, and we know from the start that there’s going to be a witch hunt. And it’s not going to end well.
When the child’s father bursts in demanding his ‘pound of flesh’, we wince. But painfully obvious anti-Semitism is countered by accusations of racial and religious prejudice, and Dr Wolff can’t win. She doesn’t get it. She thinks that being above all else a doctor is enough; but it isn’t.
Facing a crescendo of anti-Semitism and misogyny, she rages against how they ‘chop the world up into identity groups’, but it’s a losing battle. In the trial-by-media setup of the second half, she is told she is not ‘woke’. She is accused and found guilty.
In the final scene, Wolff and the priest make their peace; they talk, and he concludes ‘Hope’s hope’. I still found myself wishing she’d actually apologised to the grieving parents. But then, as one of her juniors said, ‘Sorry if , is no different from, go f*** yourself.’
In a play about identity, we identify with Ruth, for all her flaws. Perhaps because of her flaws. We too are humans, trying to be this greater thing; we relate. After all, this is ‘The Doctor’.
As Schnitzler said: ‘I write of love and death. What other subjects are there?’
Felicitas Woodhouse is a GP in Warwickshire. The Doctor is playing at the Almeida Theatre in London until September 28