Juliet Stevenson: One Of Our Greatest Actors On Her Return to the New York Stage

For the first time in 20 years Stevenson is back in New York, drawing standing ovations nightly in 'The Doctor.' She talks about updating a play from 1912 for the world today, why she loves being in New York again, and what might bring her back.

Juliet Stevenson in ‘The Doctor’ at the Park Avenue Armory Drill Hall . Stephanie Berger

Juliet Stevenson spends a major portion of the intermission of The Doctor — the play that brought her back to perform in New York for the first time in 20 years — stuck on stage, back to the audience, sipping tea brought to her by some considerate cast-member. 

Later on — toward the end of the drama, when her character’s career appears to be in shambles because of one hastily made decision — she tears around the stage five or six times like a wild thing.

Not every actor can make such actions compassionate or moving, but Stevenson is one of the most resourceful and respected actors on the London stage today, or the stage anywhere in the world, for that matter.

This might be news to you. She has only played America twice before, both times two decades ago: in Howard Barker’s Scenes from an Execution at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and in Stephen Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, opposite Jeremy Irons, at the New York City Opera.

Now she’s back in Manhattan — through Aug. 19, at the mammoth Park Avenue Armory (another  obstacle) — performing an updated adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s 1912 drama, Professor Bernhardi. The original professor was a man, but director Robert Icke has expressly rewritten the role for Stevenson. She plays a Jewish neurosurgeon who refuses to let a Roman Catholic priest administer last rites to a 14-year-old girl dying from sepsis after a botched, self-administered abortion. In Icke’s retelling, this conflict embraces cancel culture and identity politics.

The cast of ‘The Doctor’ at the Park Avenue Armory Drill Hall Stephanie Berger

As an infrequent Gotham visitor, Stevenson hasn’t lost her tourist glow. “I love being in New York again,” she tells Observer. “I haven’t been able to be here and wander about and look at it before. When I’m not working and I’m on my own or with friends, it’s phenomenal just to drink it all in.”

And what would bring her back for more of the same? “Any interesting theater job or filming job,” she answers. “Theater is the best. You actually make a relationship with a place when you’re in theater because you’re meeting audiences and hearing their responses. This time, audiences have been giving us standing ovations every night. I don’t know if that’s what audiences always do in New York. Maybe they do, but they seem to really love the play.”

This is the fourth time Stevenson has returned to The Doctor. “We did it first at the Almeida, which is like London’s Off Broadway. Then we took it to Australia for an international theater festival in 2020, and, after a Covid-shutdown, we took it into the West End in September 2022. 

“With any great play, there’s no end to what you can go on finding in it, and, for sure, we’ve found a lot of new things. First of all, the world has changed. Being set in 1912, there’s not much left of the original play. Now, it reflects new things that have happened in the world. 

“We started this four years ago before George Floyd was murdered and before Roe v. Wade was appealed. Those are issues that come up in the play which the world has brought to the fore. That’s one of the fascinating things about doing it. In New York, because of Roe v. Wade, we get an amazing response in all the conversations about abortion. Sometimes, the audience stands up and cheers about what Catholicism or what some politician is doing about abortion.”

The fact that Stevenson is a mother first and an actor second is what has kept her from sampling Broadway and long runs. “I had children, and I didn’t want to leave them and travel abroad working when they were little. But they have grown up since—my daughter, Rosalind, is 28, and my son, Gabriel, like the angel, is 22. So I’m finally free to explore my options.”

Juliet Stevenson as Winnie and David Beames (left) as Willie in Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days directed by Natalie Abrahami at the Young Vic in London, 2015. Corbis via Getty Images

Those options might include more on the New York state. “Not too long ago, I did Happy Days by Samuel Becket,” Stevenson says. “I would love to have brought that to Broadway. I’d love to bring Mary Stuart, the Schiller play that Robert Icke rewrote and put in modern dress. It played the West End about five years ago and was a big success in London.”

Stevenson and Icke share an interest in language, and in modernizing classic works — “finding out how they speak nowadays,” as she puts it. “When I was doing Shakespeare all the time, I was only interested in how those plays spoke to us now,” she says. “I have no interest in doing classics in any sort of historical or museum sense.”

She also gives Icke high points as a director. “He’s challenging for me, doesn’t let me get away with anything. That I need. When you get to a certain position in your profession, people stop directing you. They think they dare not, or they’re thinking you’re ‘Just fine, dear.’ What you do is fine — they don’t tamper with it. But Robert is tough on me. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve become a better actor, which is something at my age. It’s a robust relationship, and I’m grateful for that.”

The Doctor runs almost three hours, but you can’t prove it by Stevenson. “Five minutes to seven, just before the show goes up,” she says, “I feel I’m standing at the bottom of a mountain, looking up. I’ve got to climb to the summit, and it’s daunting. Then, I step out on stage, and all sense of time disappears. It just seems to whistle along. When I anticipate it, it seems huge and long, but, when I’m up there, you live it moment by moment, and it’s over.”

Granted, those two-a-day Saturdays are an ordeal, but Stevenson gets her energy back as the day goes along. “I’m not exhausted after the show,” she admits. “I’m quite exhausted the next morning. Every morning I wake up and feel like I’ve run a bit of a marathon. But the show gives me a lot of energy because it’s such a brilliant piece, and she’s such a wonderful character. And I have this terrific company of actors. We’re very tight. I get energy from them as well.”

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Juliet Stevenson: One Of Our Greatest Actors On Her Return to the New York Stage