The return of Robert Icke’s play about medical ethics, identity politics and antisemitism brings all the same contentions as its original run. It is often static in its action, abrasive in its tone and revels in its flagrant theatricality. Yet the effects are slowly, searingly electric and you are unlikely to see anything in the West End that comes with the same amounts of tension, combative intellectual complexity and sheer bare-toothed drama as Icke’s reworking of Arthur Schnitzler’s 1912 Viennese “comedy”, Professor Bernhardi.
Again directed by Icke, this production is a very close replica of the original at the Almeida theatre. Its plot is relatively straightforward: Ruth Wolff, the Jewish director of a leading medical institute, refuses entry to a Catholic priest to read the last rites to a 14-year-old patient who is dying of a botched, self-administered abortion. That refusal sparks online protests and government intervention outside the medical centre, and an aggressive jostling for power within it, while rank antisemitic scapegoating of the doctor ranges across the board.
It’s “a good time to talk about Jews”, says one of Ruth’s old medical-school friends, now a prominent politician, and it’s true that the themes of this play chime louder than ever in a time when racial and antisemitic bigotries thrive and identity politics have become the stuff of gladiator fights.
But The Doctor eschews binaries and turns into a richly layered thing, as bigger racial, religious and gender politics come into play. A friend who grew up Catholic in Ireland accompanied me on press night and vehemently took the side of the doctor, while I saw Ruth’s denial of religious rites as heinous. But it is not as simple as this, and the play forces the complex ethical ground beneath our feet to rumble and shake. Definitions of medical “best interests” are interrogated, and faith is pitted against medical science before that binary is itself undermined. The idea of choice – even for a child – is taken into account, and so is the shadow of the girl’s abortion.
All the arguments are nuanced and thoughtful. We see the antisemitic hate towards Ruth, and the misogynistic satisfaction in bringing a high-powered woman “down to earth”. But we also see her cleaving to a tyrannical belief in the neutrality of medical science. She refuses to see her own humanness within medicine.
Juliet Stevenson plays the doctor with counterintuitive brilliance, starting at top volume and dialling down to present the quiet tragedy of a remarkable doctor who bears the fatal flaw of arrogance. Ruth is almost unique in a world where everyone is intent on using identity for their own ends, but where does her integrity stand, the play asks, in relation to her arrogance? The gender reversal of the role carries its own complicated irony: Ruth is a woman stranded in a man’s world who is phlegmatic, patrician, overtly performing masculinity in order to survive.
The striking casting – white actors play black parts, women play men, to leave us in a morass of uncertainty – feels like an unnecessary layer of complication until its power lands with the simple use of the word “uppity” by Ruth, and we are left reflecting on language, and our own assumptions.
It is not just the play’s ideas that fizz: Natasha Chivers’ lighting is pitched for stark dramatic highs, Tom Gibbons’ music and sound design contain dread rumbles of drums and disturbing single notes that are left hovering. Hildegard Bechtler’s set of tables, doors and a kettle revolves slowly and almost ceaselessly as we see each argument dissected from every angle, and certainties slowly yanked apart to leave the grey exposed.
There are brilliant contradictions in The Doctor: unapologetically cerebral, it hooks us in emotionally, expanding in our chests. A play about mortality, it ends with hope. It will doubtless ruffle feathers, however removed we feel at the outset, its arguments bedding down deep and forcing us out of our own entrenched certainties, however briefly. It is, in the end, a captivating and profound argument against absolutes.
• At the Duke of York’s theatre until 11 December