A Shiny Life For Me!

a personal review blog by Bianca

The Doctor

The Doctor
18 October 2022
Duke Of York Theatre
3.0 out of 5.0 stars

I am a little unsure of what to think of this one.

The Doctor originally played at the Almeida in 2019, and has now received the long awaited West End transfer. This play is cast blind, in regards to race and gender, but I’m not entirely convinced it works in all instances. Usually blind casting is done where race or gender do not matter so much to the story or character, but in a story that explicitly focusses on sexism and racism, it’s unusual to go this route. But let’s start at the beginning.

Ruth Wolff, a renowned doctor working in Alzheimer’s research, happens to be in attendance as a 14yr old girl with sepsis is delivered to the hospital, and decides to assign the case to herself despite being in a completely different field. Knowing the girl will not survive, she orders gentle care and refuses to let her patient know about the severity of the situation. The parents are out of the country and on the plane back, as a priest approaches the doctor, saying he was sent by the parents to administer the last rites. Ruth refuses to let the priest near the patient, as she is unable to confirm with the parents, and does not want the patient to know that her condition is terminal. This leads to a confrontation with the priest, which he records and later shares on social media, claiming he was discriminated against due to his religion.

The whole incident blows out of proportion as several Christian groups get involved and demand Ruth be held responsible for her behaviour while she refuses to see anything wrong with her decision to not let the priest see to the 14yr old child in her care.

It is an interesting exploration of how social media can catapult small situations into public events that everyone has an opinion on, but I am unclear on what the play tries to achieve with this. Is it a condemnation of reactive “cancel culture”? Is it speaking in support of airing issues publicly to gain awareness of oppression? Does it pose a point on religious persecution? Or does it focus on the effects of racism and racist biases? It is unclear which side of the issue it stands on, or if it takes a stance at all.

Now, if you don’t want spoilers, stop reading here and go watch the play for yourself. You have been warned.

One point that is very interesting and unique is that many characters are cast against their character’s race and gender, but still addressed and spoken about as the character. This leads to, for example, a woman of colour being referred to as a white man. This does add an interesting angle, as viewers are confronted with their own biases and assumption when characters are revealed to be a very different ethnicity or gender through context in conversations.

However, it also leads to two situations in which white-presenting characters claim discrimination on the basis that they are Black men, which leaves a bit of a bitter aftertaste. On one hand, it does give an interesting depth to a situation in which viewers assume someone is white, who is later revealed to be Black and thus having to re-examine the situation for racial bias. But, for me personally it feels a bit awkward to see a white-presenting man berate POC for not understanding his situation as he claims to be the only visibly non-white person in the room.

I do think colour blind, and gender blind, casting have their place in theatre, and am usually a big fan of switching things up, but when a play is specifically about identity and social biases, it feels like the characters who are contextualised as POC but played by white-presenting people lose some of their agency and identity in the process.

Overall, it is a powerful story with many twists and turns, that demands full attention at all times to pick up all the little context clues and find out which character has which background. But all of that muddles up what we’re actually presented with, obscuring the content of the show by turning social context and identity characteristics of its characters into a treasure hunt, distracting from the plot with so many layers of subversion.

In the end, I couldn’t see a clear message in The Doctor, nor did the play take a position on any of the topics it approached. Sure, there was amazing acting talent, an engaging story, and so many surprises and turns that it definitely kept entertaining throughout. But to what end?

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