Staff writer Rachel Cooke reviews “The Doctor”, a thought-provoking play that questions the extent to which our identities colour our lives.
A riveting contemplation on medical ethics, identity politics, and the search for neutral ground in an increasingly polarised world, “The Doctor” is a show primarily centred around dialogue, the words of which will keep you on the edge of your seat.
Ruth Wolff, played brilliantly by Juliet Stevenson, is the founder and executive of a prestigious medical institute. Wolff is also Jewish, not that it is important, according to her. When a Catholic priest attempts to go into the medical room of one of her patients, a young girl who is dying of sepsis after a botched abortion, Wolff denies him access. Suddenly, her identity and beliefs become what defines her. A fight ensues between Wolff and the priest, ending in the priest leaving the hospital and the young girl dying without her last rites performed. The event quickly devolves into a social media storm, crucifying Wolff for her inhumanity and apparent inability to allow patients the right to practice their religious beliefs.
The medical board on which Wolff is executive is torn in two. Half of the board believes that Wolff was well within her rights as a doctor, not allowing the priest entry as the girl was dying to allow for peace as she passed away. The other half of the board thinks otherwise, saying that Wolff should have simply asked the girl what her wishes were and allowed the priest to perform her last rites.
The entirety of the play is focused on this debate: was Wolff right or wrong? On the bare and minimalistic bright white stage, Wolff is forced to defend her position throughout the show. There is an ethereal atmosphere almost reminiscent of the depiction of heaven often seen in film, and I could not help but make the comparison between judgement day and the present trial in which Wolff found herself.
The rest of the cast incorporated myriad counterarguments: from the positions of reporters, other committees, her own colleagues, and a transgender girl who Wolff befriended. Every possible moral position is put on display, the far-left, the far-right, and all of the grey areas in between.
There are many critical questions at stake here. Are our identities inseparable from every factor of our lives? Can any situation truly be treated with objectivity? Could Wolff ever hope to separate her identity from her medical practice? The fact that Wolff is a white Jewish woman is both a privilege and a disadvantage at different points in the show. No matter how hard Wolff tries to draw a line in the sand between religion and identity, and between medicine and science, she ultimately fails to do so.
Sympathy can be found for both positions, forcing the audience members to consider entirely new perspectives. Each switch of the debate keeps you wondering, questioning, and contemplating your own beliefs. Though the play can come across as preachy in parts, with the key dialogue eroding into lengthy monologues or speeches arguing for and against various ethical viewpoints, it is never boring, nor does it ever feel like a lecture. Rather, it is a captivating debate about a multitude of prevalent issues, presented through the context of a plausible real-life scenario. Here, we are given a situation in which the entirety of a person’s life, career, and identity hinges on the balance of the conclusion thus decided.
Through this heart-wrenching story, creator Robert Icke has sparked a timely conversation that everyone who is able should take part in.
“The Doctor” is playing at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 11 December. You can book tickets here.