Current Issue #487

Festival Review:
The Doctor

Tony Lewis

Robert Icke’s contemporary update of Arthur Schnitzler’s Professor Bernhardi digs into modern discussions about ethics, identity politics and online outrage, but struggles to fully comprehend this difficult terrain.

“Both the rosary and the smartphone serve the purpose of self-monitoring and control,” writes philosopher Byung-Chul Han. It’s an odd coupling, digital technology and religion. Yet Robert Icke’s The Doctor also makes this analogy— “Jesus didn’t live in the digital age,” laments one character, Twitter users are “sanctimonious non-entities,” while witches, inquisitors, and the Inquisition are referenced alongside digital activism throughout the performance. 137 years after Nietzchke pronounced God dead, has digital networking marshalled in new forms of (self)control and (self)censorship?

The Doctor answers in the affirmative. Loosely based on Arthur Schnitzler’s  Professor Bernhardi, the story is re-created to suit a contemporary context: a female doctor (Ruth Wolff or ‘BB,’ as in Big Bad, performed by Juliet Stevenson) is attending to a teenage patient dying from a self-administered abortion. A priest arrives demanding to give the patient her last rites, citing authority from the teenager’s parents. Wolff refuses him entry, first with her trademark disdain, and then with some physical force. The patient dies and controversy over the incident erupts, manufactured in the real world but playing out online, where the validity of Wolff’s refusal is ferociously contested.

The ensuing tension between the characters is palpable. Wolff’s colleague Roger, a wily man with Macbethian ambition, is the agitator, plotting through strategic leaks and political maneuvering her downfall. Stevenson’s performance as Wolff is noteworthy, delivered with the contours befitting her character’s sharp-witted and proud personality. There are moments when the story feels too contrived for our cultural milieu (would the rejection of a Catholic priest from a minor’s room really be so hotly contested?), yet these suspicions are easy to hush in the first half of the performance, while the tension is building and gripping the audience. 

When it is responding to the haziness of medical ethics, The Doctor is convincing. However, as it begins to navigate themes of digital activism and identity politics, it falters,  flattening complexities. As the controversy unfolds, Wolff and her clinic are attacked online by detractors with a wounded sense of Christian identity. The good work of her clinic—including its world-class research into Alzheimers—becomes superfluous. Due to pressure within her clinic and externally, Wolff steps aside from her founding role as executive. We’re all familiar with the chaos and cruelty that social media trolling can inspire. It is more than trolling that The Doctor presents us with though—the controversy amounts to an organised online movement, thus the audience is drawn to make comparisons with recent movements such as #metoo, #rhodesmustfall, etc. It’s a social media “shitstorm,” to borrow Han’s phrase. The subtext of the controversy seems trivial (i.e. “As a Christian, I disagree with your ethical decision therefore I’ll organise against you,”) for the scale and irrationality of the anger—and so the whole story feels inauthentic and naive, as if The Doctor has miscalculated the real, entrenched oppressions that have brought recent online movements to fruition. 

“It’s as if The Doctor has miscalculated the real, entrenched oppressions that have brought recent online movements to fruition.”

Through ambiguous racial and gender casting, it is somewhere at the halfway point of the play that the audience realises that the priest is black—thereby also bringing a racial component to the controversy. Wolff’s use of the term ‘uppity’ when refusing the priest entry suddenly weighs heavily.  The casting is a clever mechanism for scrutinising race and gender bias—yet the opportunity is squandered during a Q&A panel. Wolf, agitated and vulnerable, a shell of her former confident self, faces off a panel of interlocutors/inquisitors. One panelist introduces herself as a researcher in unconscious  bias—and this could’ve been a moment of genuine reflection and balance, but it is rendered silly by the panelist’s proceeding description of herself as ‘woke’ and the ‘woke/unwoke’ binary.  The scene becomes a cheap shot at concepts and words that have been stripped of their proper content /context (Is woke ever used in earnest on the internet?) Ironic for a play in which the main character keenly lobbies for the precise use of language among her peers (“You will not ‘literally’ die you will ‘figuratively’ die,” Wolff corrects a young friend). 

Digital activism is complicated terrain. Online outrage can be thunderous in volume but granular in potency, directed at individuals rather than structures. It feeds off anger—in a study by Rui Fan of Beihang University, it was shown that anger propagated faster and more broadly than any other sentiment on Weibo. It can have tragic effects on individuals caught in the storm. Yet it can also be an effective recourse of justice for victims, where other avenues are eclipsed by the power of the perpetrator/s. Online movements may not alter existing power relations, but they can pull a few threads for larger rips to occur. Rather than responding to these contradictions with nuance and texture, The Doctor prefers simplicity. With heavy-handed references to Inquisitors and the raging hordes online, the play feels like misplaced nostalgia for an era when critical discourse was mediated (and guarded) by institutions and broadcast media.

“It’s hard to hear each other with history crashing over us like waves,” Wolff says to the priest in a closing dialogue. It’s an elegant recognition that our socio-political systems are enmeshed in a painful history, that our views are blinkered by our own experiences, that it can be difficult to understand the other. In this closing scene, Wolff and the priest engage in a conversation about the multitudes present in human beings—that we are not contained by our identities. Yet this is somewhat of a mute point, as this has never been in refutation either by online movements or identity politics. The closing dialogue reinforces the central problem of the play: it fails to fully grasp what it tries to survey.

Rather than navigating a maze of complexities, The Doctor handles its themes more like a tourist ambling through: sightseeing, stopping and touching… but never really understanding.

The Doctor was performed at Dunstan Playhouse on Friday February 28

Ena Grozdanic

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