Juliet Stevenson on The Doctor’s West End transfer and channelling personal tragedy into her work

Juliet Stevenson in The Doctor  (Manuel Harlan)
Juliet Stevenson in The Doctor (Manuel Harlan)

It’s slightly ironic that Juliet Stevenson weathered a two-year pandemic delay to transfer Robert Icke’s extraordinary play The Doctor to the West End, only to fall ill on its pre-London tour.

A chest infection kept the 65-year-old actress out of a week of performances at Richmond Theatre, prior to its transfer to the Duke of York’s Theatre on St Martin’s Lane. “I’m so sorry I let them down, because I never think I can’t manage a show,” she says, fully recovered when we meet at her home. “I’ve performed with a temperature and a broken hand…” It was all the more galling as the part of the titular physician, Ruth Wolf, is “the role of a lifetime”.

The play is freely adapted by Icke from Arthur Schnitzler’s obscure 1912 work Professor Bernhardi. It deals with the viral storm (in online terms) after a Jewish doctor stops a catholic priest administering the last rites to a girl dying from a self-administered abortion, so that she doesn’t die in fear.

“It’s about the social media forces shaping our culture, the shifting of realities and truths to serve an agenda, everybody shouting into their own echo chambers, the silencing of public conversations,” says Stevenson. “The feeling now that there are some things you cannot speak to or challenge for fear of being cancelled.”

 (Manuel Harlan)
(Manuel Harlan)

Wolf is spiky, arrogant, never off stage, and unusually for a female character over 40 “she carries the narrative”. The play’s inquiry into the identities we choose or which are imposed on us – racial, sexual, political, gendered – is heightened by boldly counter-intuitive casting: women playing men, white actors playing characters of colour, and vice versa.

The original Almeida production won Icke the 2019 Evening Standard Milton Shulman Award for Best Director. “What’s extraordinary is that it was written for its moment in 2019 but feels even more resonant and relevant now,” says Stevenson. “Black Lives Matter happened in the interim. A lot more famous people have been cancelled.”

As the play features a delicately nuanced transgender character, I assume Stevenson is talking here about JK Rowling, who’s been slammed on one side and fêted on the other for her supposed gender critical views. No, she clarifies, she was thinking of some theatre people, related to #MeToo. It’s a measure of Icke’s skill that the play can take such a multifaceted approach to hot-button issues without seeming overloaded.

“It’s like a prism,” says Stevenson. “It turns and you see a new face. And it does what theatre does so beautifully and uniquely at its best - it puts everything onto that stage which is in the fabric of our current life, a lot of which people are very frightened of or overwhelmed by. And it allows the conversation to happen with no risk to anybody.”

It’s also a powerful statement of the power of imagination in theatre, and the transformation involved in acting. Stevenson is not herself Jewish, though her husband, anthropologist Hugh Brody (they married last year after 30 years together) is “deeply, culturally Jewish, and my mum-in-law is a refugee from Hitler’s Vienna”.

Juliet Stevenson at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards in 2019 (Getty Images)
Juliet Stevenson at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards in 2019 (Getty Images)

Though she acknowledges that some characters require specificity – “I don’t think Cleopatra should ever be played by a white actor again” – she decries the idea that “we can only play characters who are the same as we are”. That would mean British actors shouldn’t do Lorca, or Chekhov, or Brecht. A robust interaction of cultures is “often where art is made”. She pauses, smiling. “Am I sounding pretentious? I can do, sometimes.”

Actually no. This is the third time I’ve interviewed Stevenson and she’s always passionate but never pretentious. The daughter of a teacher and an army officer, she’s from the extraordinary generation of 1970s RADA graduates that included Kenneth Branagh, Imelda Staunton and Alan Rickman.

The Royal Shakespeare Company promoted her from small roles to mould-breaking lead performances in mid-Eighties productions of Measure for Measure, Troilus and Cressida and Midsummer Night’s Dream, as well as new plays. The organisation was then at the height of its cultural power, nurturing but deeply sexist.

“I started a campaign with my good friends Lindsay Duncan and Fiona Shaw to get a woman in there because there were 12 associate directors, all white guys,” she says, claiming that then-artistic director Terry Hands responded with a memo telling her: “You can’t be a guerrilla in an establishment tank.”

More than 30 years on, the RSC has just appointed Tamara Harvey as joint artistic director with Daniel Evans: “I’m a big fan of both their work, but the fact that she [Harvey] is the first woman [AD] has to be observed to be quite shocking.” (Erica Whyman, the RSC deputy artistic director has been acting artistic director since Gregory Doran stepped down to look after his husband Antony Sher, who died in December)

In the late Eighties and Nineties, Stevenson had a string of incandescent stage roles: opposite John Malkovich in Burn This; in Yerma at the National; in Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden, which inspired her subsequently to campaign for human rights and on behalf of refugees (she and Brody are currently sharing their home in Archway with a Ukrainian mother and her six-year-old daughter).

She also broke through in film in Anthony Minghella’s Truly, Madly, Deeply, opposite Rickman, and worked with Peter Greenaway and David Hare. Back then, it was all about the work. “I wanted to be things and do things in the world,” she says. “I mean, I fell in love and had love affairs and things, but I hated domesticity.”

She has always described meeting Brody in the early Nineties as a revelation: she felt she recognised him instantly. “Every single day I just can’t believe my luck, to live with somebody so interesting, so inquisitive, so engaged, so funny. And not in my own profession so it helps me get a perspective on it as I am pretty obsessive…”

The birth of their children Rosalind and Gabriel in 1994 and 2000 led her to throttle back on stage work for several years, and also to fall out of love with acting a little. “In my 40s I thought, ‘Do I go on doing this? Surely I can do something more useful,”’ she recalls. Added to this, two close collaborators died: Minghella in 2008, theatre director Howard Davies in 2016.

She was rejuvenated by creative partnerships from a younger generation. First with Natalie Abrahami, who buried her in sand in Beckett’s Happy Days and put her on a trapeze (“such fun, but a crackers thing to do at 60”) in Wings, both at the Young Vic.

Then in 2016, Icke cast her and Lia Williams as Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots in Mary Stuart, the two of them alternating the roles depending on the nightly toss of a coin. She was Gertrude to Andrew Scott’s Hamlet for Icke in 2017; then came The Doctor. She describes Icke as “a visionary” and adds, “I can be completely myself in the rehearsal room with this generation in a way that I couldn’t with my own generation who were much more hierarchical.”

She’s delighted The Doctor is having its promised second life, first in the West End and then on Broadway, but returning to it has been hard. As well as identity and cancel culture, the play is about loss, including the gradual erosion of the personality that dementia brings (Ruth Wolf is working on a cure for Alzheimer’s, from which her partner suffers). Stevenson’s stepson, film-maker Tomo Brody, died suddenly in November 2020, and her mother died in May this year.

“She was in her 90s and an incredible woman until two years ago when she got dementia and also psychosis which took her to the far end of paranoia. She thought at the end that I was trying to kill her. So I lost her before I lost her. And Tomo… Coming back to the play, on the first day I thought it was too much, I felt like I was going to go into meltdown. But then of course on day two or day three I just thought, this is so good. And every night out there I think about mum when I talk about Alzheimer’s. I’m so lucky to be able to channel stuff into the work.”

The Duke of York’s Theatre, from September 29 to December 11; atgtickets.com