Robert Icke’s time as associate director at the Almeida has been explosive. He leaves, after six years, still in his early 30s, having opened up and dusted off, among others, 1984, Hamlet and Mary Stuart. His final production is among the most remarkable for its twisting, needling argument, its radiant intimacy and a blazing central performance from Juliet Stevenson.
The Doctor has been “very freely” adapted by Icke from Arthur Schnitzler’s play Professor Bernhardi, first staged in Berlin in 1912. The central trigger of the action is the same: a doctor, wanting to protect a young woman from the knowledge that she is dying, refuses to allow a Catholic priest to administer the last rites. The doctor is Jewish and after the girl’s death is enveloped in a storm of antisemitic protest; the play was originally banned in Vienna, where it is set.
Icke makes the storm into a blizzard, in which selfhood is fractured, dispelled, unknowable. His doctor is white and a woman and an atheist, the head of a medical institution where some feel the white and the female and the non-religious are privileged. The priest is, it turns out, black. “Turns out”, because in a brilliantly bewildering manoeuvre, Icke cross-casts black and white actors, women and men, so that we know what they “are” only when they tell us. Much as they declare their profession by a uniform: characters are seen becoming a priest and doctor by putting on dog collar and white coat.
This jolt to assumptions is needed – even when it means too much is going on. The production, which teases us into thinking we are seeing things from all angles, with the stage revolving minutely through the evening, is more tendentious than it first appears. I doubt whether many in the Almeida audience will be lining up behind characters other than the doctor.
Stevenson brings all her perplexed intensity to the role. Limbs neat and rigid, she moves like a soldier on parade. She quenches a subordinate with a flick of her eyes. Yet under interrogation her face – observed in closeup on a video screen – is seen at war with itself, eyes and mouth puckering in contradiction and pain. Alongside her, Ria Zmitrowicz magnetises as an adolescent swimming up from the depths of difficulty.
The Doctor is more than a debate, as much personal as public. Above the stage Hannah Ledwidge sits drumming, sending out a pulse between scenes. Hildegard Bechtler’s design – pale wood and metal in clean curves – looks clear-cut but is drizzled with shadow by Natasha Chivers’s subtle lighting. Everything steers towards the conflicts of a doctor whose favoured expression is “crystal clear”. Icke is a really complete director.
Many things put me off Mythos, Stephen Fry’s retelling of Greek myths. The leather armchair that might have been lifted from under the bum of a dozing gent in the London Library. The default violet lighting. The huge gilt lettering on a glossy, sky-blue screen: this is POPULAR. Above all, the notion of being buttonholed by another white, public-school boy who presses his classical learning on us and has a strong facetious streak. Eheu!
And yet. This trilogy of monologues based on Fry’s books (two published, one yet to appear), and directed by Tim Carroll, has huge brio. The feat of memory – there is no standard running time as the number of ad libs vary, but together they run at more than eight hours – starts with the beginning of the gods and men: “a huge cosmic yawn”, which Fry points out eventually gave us biscuits, art and politicians. “Heroes” moves through men wrestling with monsters (Heracles trudges off “like a commuter” to get rid of them) and their complicated mating with gods, their own family members and the occasional beast. “Men” gives us the Trojan war: wandering and coming home. Fry puts it all together at the end by pronouncing it a coming-of-age story: a growth of independence of men from gods, a subsuming of their attributes into mental and emotional states.
That is as close as he gets to analysis, though Freud’s castration anxiety gets a nod (“bless him”) and the Greeks a pat on the back for being sexually adventurous. The trilogy is a string of vivacious nuggets. Individual stories are partly updated – “Olympus has got talent” – and partly treated as cosy adjuncts to a world of Wodehouse volumes: Hera is billed as Bertie’s Aunt Agatha. There are some good dimpling bits of smut: Jove and his impregnation by golden rain gets a big wink.
The characterisation is funny voices. Some of them are sharp and surprising: Prince Charles turns up as Aegeus, Michael Caine as a bodyguard. Some are lazy: why does (it is not only Fry who is guilty here) a tedious pedant have a whiny estuary – as if “Dud” in the Peter Cook and Dudley Moore sketches were an adjective? And why can’t a brainbox have a Brummie accent?
Fry is very good at showing how the myths stretch their sinews in etymology. Less good on making them seem vital as ideas. I had been thinking that in the recent upsurge of interest in the classics it had mainly been women who had led the way in translation, poetry and history: Natalie Haynes, Charlotte Higgins, Emily Wilson, Alice Oswald… But then I remembered the blasting effect of Robert Icke’s Oresteia.
• The Doctor is at the Almeida until 28 September
Star ratings (out of five)
The Doctor ★★★★
Mythos: A Trilogy ★★★