The Doctor’s Dilemma exhibits classically Shavian biting wit and a coldly realistic plot, but the script has suffered over time – this is a play in need of trim, with characters expostulating and scenes dragging for too long. Outside of that, it’s a pretty production and very well-performed, and a welcome revival of George Bernard Shaw – more please! At the National Theatre.
The dilemma in question is for the recently named Sir Colenzo Ridgeon, who has discovered a radical new cure for tuberculosis – but, with resources tight and only one space left on his trial course of treatment, should he treat his friend and fellow Dr Blenkinsop or impoverished artist and ‘scoundrel’ Louis Dubedat? And what about Dubedat’s gorgeous wife Jenifer, whom Sir Colenzo has fallen in love with?
On the surface, the dilemma sounds simple – save the brilliant but difficult artist or the good, respectable doctor? The complications arise when you consider Sir Colenzo’s interest in the wife – should he gain her gratitude by healing her husband, or let him die and offer her a shoulder to cry on? And, ethically speaking, is an artist more worth saving than a city GP who’s already dying of stress? It’s a tangled mess to unknot – well, it should be, but Shaw cuts through most of that quite quickly by making most of the characters rather unlikeable. Dubedat is a scrounger, his wife Jenifer is a clueless romantic, and Sir Colenzo a whole ball of inadequacies: he assumes that Jenifer likes him (“I can tell” – he intones over an expensive supper), and he dehumanises his subjects to try and make an objective decision, but it doing so just appears cold.
So, what’s the appeal of the play? To be honest, that’s the biggest sticking point here – all of the criticisms of Shaw are present in this full-bore early piece, where cold characters, plots defined by realism and acerbic wit make for an uncomfortable romantic plot line – and it just goes on for too long, with points overlaboured and scenes taking far too long to get to the meat of the play.
However, ignoring that, there’s a lot here to praise: Shaw’s damning criticism of the medical profession post-turn of the century and pre-war as opportunistic snake-oil salesmen plays as an enjoyable counterpoint to Sir Colenzo’s successful treatment. Two pompous doctors represent their fields as delicious caricatures: Robert Portal’s surgeon Cutler Walpole wants to remove fictional organs and decries all disease as ‘blood poisoning’, while Malcolm Sinclair’s scene-stealing GP Sir Ralph Bloomfield Bonington waffles on about anti-toxins, but clearly has little understanding of medicine. Walpole, unfortunately, is a one-joke character, but Portal gives him enough bombast to carry him through the piece, while Sinclair’s blathering big-wig gets the biggest laughs throughout the night with a long string of piffle on any given subject.
The other performers also get plenty of moments to shine – particularly Aden Gillet (Sir Colenzo), Genevive O’Reilly (Jenifer) and Dubedat (Tom Burke), with their interactions the most emotionally fraught. The script may meander, but all three have drawn clear and solid characters from what’s on offer – Tom Burke especially impresses as the irrepressible and morally ambiguous artist, and it’s a clever production ruse to counter the Victorian gentlemen’s reproaches to his character with a genuinely likeable rapscallion. Gillet and O’Reilly suffer more from the romantic meanderings, with both coming across as too harsh and too wet (respectively), but they’re still very watchable.
However, the real star here is the almost faultless design and production – the various sets are simply gorgeous, chock full of detailed period props, accentuating the differences between Sir Colenzo’s crisp, clean office and Dubedat’s studio, overflowing with artistic materials and inspirations. The costumes also exhibit a similar grasp of period and style – and the deliciously slow yet fitting scene changes, with many a sliding stage or flying wall, just add to the sense of visual poetry; full credit where it’s due to designer Peter McKintosh.
It has its faults, but The Doctor’s Dilemma is still a great addition to the National’s healthy back-catalogue – and if it could be the start of a Shaw revival, that’d be the cherry on top! – although, next time, might I respectfully request that we stop trying to revive the ‘unperformed’ plays by the masters? There’s a reason they’re largely unperformed – for every golden goose, there’ll be a lot of turkeys. Not that this is a turkey – but it could have done with more vigorous plucking.