Features Essays Published 9 September 2019

The Doctor, and theatre’s troubled relationship with identity politics

Ravi Ghosh writes on Rob Icke's dive into minority identity, and why audiences need to be pushed towards self-examination, not self-congratulation.
Ravi Ghosh

‘The Doctor’ at Almeida Theatre. Photo: Manuel Harlan

Last week, Dominic Cavendish wrote a piece in The Telegraph asking ‘Has theatre abandoned the middle class?’ Beyond the inflammatory headline, he suggests that although middle-class audiences are not being actively discouraged from the theatre, we may have ‘reached a point where they’re being sidelined, even erased from the conversation’. In London, recent pushes towards diversity have brought positive results which mask continued imbalances in theatre. There is a huge difference between seeing shows that tackle minority identity, and actually allowing them the space to confront you ideologically. Some audience members’ unwillingness to do the latter may be motivating this idea that middle class preferences are being ignored. This is the conservative way of watching theatre; viewing diversity as an exotic diversion. But not allowing minority’s viewpoints to actually be heard not only neutralises their impact, it also encourages directors and venues towards tokenism, encoding an establishment backlash through programming and tone.

The Doctor, Robert Icke’s final offering as associate director of The Almeida, may be a case in point. On the surface, it’s a distortive, antagonistic, complex deep-dive into the perceived dangers of both self-defined and externally assigned minority identity, but Icke’s devices writhe awkwardly when we consider their real-world counterparts outside of the theatre. When productions tackle minority identity — whether gender, sexuality, race or other — they naturally sacrifice part of their escapist appeal. Audiences must be pushed towards self-examination, to discomfort even, otherwise work risks becoming contextually vacuous, furnished only with dialogue dressed up as a debate. Whether or not Icke achieves this discomfort with The Doctor gradually reveals itself to be less important than whether he actually wants to. 

The play begins as a thorny medical ethics story, a ‘very free adaptation’ of Arthur Schnitzler’s Professor Bernhardi: a witch hunt tale depicting Viennese society’s anti-Semitic hounding of an esteemed Jewish doctor after he refuses a Catholic priest access to a dying abortion patient. Icke’s Bernhardi is Ruth Wolff, a decorated professor leading The Elizabeth Institute for dementia research. She is surrounded by an initially supportive team, though as the scandal around her deepens, splits emerge and she is ostracised. In the play’s second half, Ruth appears on TV show ‘Take the Debate’ to answer for her actions, faced with an inquisition-style panel who skewer her decisions and prejudices. 

Rather than tiptoeing around the play’s potentially difficult topics, Icke implodes them. In the resulting crater, he packs updated anti-Semitic themes alongside huge swathes of identity politics — mostly centring on workplace discrimination (both positive and negative), unconscious racial bias and whether individuals can opt out of identity groups. But despite this mass diversification, the first half of The Doctor, while gripping, still feels strangely conventional.

Icke’s fierce, intellectual, self-referential writing follows a tested realist blueprint: select an academic, often inaccessible environment — parliamentary politics, medicine and the judicial system are popular choices — and write high-functioning characters with complex agendas to humanise the establishment. Nina Raine’s Consent in particular comes to mind. By speaking in specialised language, they create a behind-the-scenes feel which ensures constant intrigue. Because characters are selfish, introspective and vulnerable, the writing moves quickly and widely, especially in discussions of identity. The result is an audience left marvelling at rhetorical density and thematic scope, often left transfixed by a necessarily masterful central performance (Juliet Stevenson dutifully obliges).

So why, despite this method, does The Doctor’s feel so clumsy? An early translator of Schnitzler introduced Bernhardi’s supporting doctors as types: ‘The hypocrite, the incompetent, the enthusiast, the Zionist, the anti-Semitic ones, the false and the real philanthropists’, before stating that ‘Even on stage, it is difficult to distinguish them in their diversity’. Icke creates his own opacity in response, recommending that ‘each actor’s identity should be directly dissonant with their character’s identity in at least one way’. The result is racial and gender cross casting, with the aim that ‘the audience are made to re-consider characters as they learn more about who the characters are’. It’s an interesting idea, but it also clouds nuance, and implies that vocalising minority experience can be counterintuitive in real world scenarios. 

In the play’s first half, Daniel Rabin plays black Catholic doctor (and Ruth’s biggest critic) Paul Murphy, while Paul Higgins depicts black Catholic priest Jacob Rice. Both actors are white. Icke’s aim is achieved — we do change our opinions when character is revealed — but the latent implication is that racial identity is detached from the non-white body. It instead becomes a rhetorical costume, invoked in moments of argument by white figures (Rabin and Higgins are both excellent actors, but no amount of imagination can alter skin tone). Without the signifier of the non-white body within narratives of racist violence, the valid argument that Ruth may have been more comfortable physically blocking the priest because he is black feels cheapened. 

This episode is eventually reconnected with its transhistorical context in a satirical scene that’s styled as a TV panel show called ‘Take the Debate’. In it, a postcolonial politics academic asks Ruth whether she understands why people are angry — it feels spoofed, and prompts derisive audience laughter. With a non-white character (and actor) raising these issues, the satire feels targeted; Ruth becomes a mouthpiece for ‘common sense’, recklessly positioned against the self-indulgent modern trend of ‘taking identity politics too far’. Because of the (quite literally) institutional anti-Semitism on show in the hospital setting, we are inclined to defend Ruth from a full inquisition, but the TV debate format suffocates our ability to detach the story’s sensitive threads, collapsing it into indelicate false equivalences: on the panel, a pro-life campaigner sits next to a postcolonial academic, while Ruth is left to combat them simultaneously. Anti-Semitism feels trivialised by characters in this section too, all because Ruth views her Jewish affinity as cultural. 

This criticism of the play assumes the audience’s white gaze alongside Icke’s, but The Almeida’s crowd demographic justifies generalisation, as does the current state of British theatre criticism. The Doctor has been lauded for its complexity and all-encompassing nature, but again, the constant lens of whiteness means that Icke’s work has been widely interpreted as a warning against identity politics. Well-written sections on semantics and intent — especially on ‘The right to self-determine using language’ and the brilliant takedown of Ruth’s use of the word ‘uppity’ — are seemingly overlooked, leaving little residual power. Icke’s dialogue is carefully balanced in these areas, but the TV debate frame dismantles its impact.

The critical response reflects this. In The Guardian, Michael Billington identifies one of the play’s topics as ‘the danger of constantly playing identity politics’ while in The New European, Tim Walker channels the Little England energy against which he typically rallies, writing that ‘Identity politics […] means we’re now required to be in an almost perpetual state of outrage over this, that and the other’. Over at The Times, Quentin Letts writes that ‘The Doctor blasts the mad, destructive politics of minority identity’, though upon what actual understanding of said politics he draws is, to borrow a phrase, rather difficult to pin to the ground. If The Doctor’s legacy is to help cement the alleged ‘madness’ of being anything other than a straight white man in your late fifties, then Icke, The Almeida, and British theatre in general have far bigger problems than they currently acknowledge — though perhaps ignoring everything Mr Letts writes is one viable solution.

Robert Icke’s particular standing in British theatre might make him an easy target, but The Doctor does have genuine flaws. Parts are brilliantly written; the acting, staging and sound are exquisite, but it includes too much and develops too little. Though perhaps it is exactly as Icke intended. Just as it is in the world of comedy the idea that woke censorship must be resisted as an act of artistic defiance is infectious to powerful men, whether exercised first hand or dramatised on stage. Stirring up these critical responses may be Icke continuing an ongoing conversation in the Almeida’s programming. The Hunt, which preceded it, followed a white man wrongfully accused of paedophilia: another flawed figure, wrongfully strung up by the viciousness of public opinion. It’s a combative stance in an increasingly inclusive era, and one that’s typically well received, especially by privileged theatregoers. But in The Doctor, the mishandling of progressive ideas creates a lazy victim complex. Left unchallenged by audiences and critics alike, its assault on identity politics flourishes, a symptom of British theatre’s unwillingness to animate and empower its silenced proponents.

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Ravi Ghosh is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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