Photo: Manuel Harlan

Robert Icke’s The Doctor originally opened at The Almeida Theatre in Islington in 2019 to absolutely rave reviews. It’s now transferred to the Duke of York’s Theatre on London’s West End and we’re thrilled to have it back. Reprising the role of The Doctor is Olivier winning-actress Juliet Stevenson, who is absolutely incredible from start to finish – this is arguably a career-defining performance here, which is no small feat given her numerous illustrious successes on stage and screen.

It all starts simply enough: in the opening scenes we see our doctor giving end-of-life care to a patient with sepsis, a complication of a botched abortion. She refuses a priest access to the dying patient, on the grounds that the notes don’t stipulate whether or not they’re religious. She is following protocol to the letter, and while a few eyebrows are raised amongst Christian members of staff at the hospital, it doesn’t seem like anything too contentious has occurred.

But a partial recording of the altercation between the doctor and the priest is posted online and goes viral; suddenly, everyone is interested. All sorts of questions are raised: was physical force used? Was the incident racially-charged? Has there been discrimination based on religion? Where does the doctor stand on abortion? It rapidly becomes a play about identity, and while our doctor claims to be impartial and making decisions based on scientific facts, she is evidently from a privileged, wealthy Jewish family and her potential prejudices are called into question. Can anyone ever truly make a completely impartial decision?

The Doctor’s absolute masterstroke, however, is its use of blind casting – for both gender and ethnicity. We made a series of assumptions about our characters based on how they looked, but their true identities are gradually drip-fed to us over the course of the play. Some of the behaviours or attitudes suddenly started to make more sense when we understood that these characters weren’t who they appeared to be, forcing us to constantly examine our own biases. We’ve never been so regularly wrong-footed by a play before, and it’s brilliant.

We’re always a little reluctant to give a perfect score, as the perfect play doesn’t exist, but you’re unlikely to see a show better than The Doctor this year. Not only is it an intelligent and nuanced exploration of identity, but it’s full of impressive acting, most notably from Juliet Stevenson – it feels like a rare and special moment, witnessing a performance so truly remarkable. We don’t want to say how it ends, but suffice to say we left the theatre both incredibly moved and full of hope. This is so much more than just a great play, well acted: it’s an absolute masterclass in the art of theatre making.

GAY TIMES gives The Doctor – 5/5

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