The George Bernard Shaw revival at the National Theatre continues apace with one of his lesser-known but most substantial plays. Following on from successful productions of Saint Joan and Major Barbara, The Doctor’s Dilemma is a serious comedy about medical ethics in which, despite huge advances in scientific knowledge in the intervening years, many of the questions raised remain as relevant now as they were when the play was first staged in 1906.
The central dilemma of the title falls to recently knighted doctor Colenso Ridgeon, who has developed an experimental cure for tuberculosis but must decide who is most worthy of the limited treatment available: a brilliant but morally flawed young artist Louis Dubedat, or the benevolent but mediocre general practitioner Blenkinsop. Ridgeon’s tricky choice is made more complicated by the fact that he has fallen for Dubedat’s attractive wife Jennifer, so that personal passion competes with public impartiality, and art vies with science.
As an advocate of a national health service, Shaw attacks the vested interests of a private profession, where doctors follow their own individual obsessions, offer quack remedies or prescribe unnecessary treatments for financial gain. And some of the play’s issues resonate today, with the government being charged with bringing in privatisation by the back door and an overburdened health system having to make tough decisions about whether it can afford to treat patients with unhealthy lifestyles.
Shaw is known as a cerebral, wordy playwright, often accused of being more interested in ideas than people, but in Nadia Fall’s triumphant production The Doctor’s Dilemma is far from being a dry debating chamber. This devastating satire on the medical profession is not only extremely witty, but underlying it is a surprising amount of genuine emotion. The love interest is persuasively understated, with even an erotic frisson involving shedding of clothes. Although nothing has been updated, some judicious trimming of the text and a direct approach makes the play seem remarkably fresh and sprightly for a centenarian.
Peter McKintosh’s stunning design takes us from well-appointed Harley Street consulting rooms to the grand Star and Garter Hotel in Richmond, and from the sensuous disarray of an artist’s studio garret to a smart Bond Street picture gallery, as the establishment values are counterpointed by bohemian unconventionality. Neil Austin’s lighting is particularly effective in a beautifully muted death scene, while Gregory Clarke’s sound effects of horse-drawn carriages evoke the Edwardian period.
Aden Gillett is compelling and convincing, playing Sir Colenso as a high-achieving, progressive doctor in a mid-life crisis, a bachelor who has put his career first but now unexpectedly falls in love causing all sorts of complications. Genevieve O’Reilly gives Jennifer a determined ardour, while Tom Burke is deliciously decadent as the womanising scrounger Louis who loves to challenge bourgeois morality. Derek Hutchinson is the likeably humble but naive Blenkinsop, Malcolm Sinclair nicely sends up an incompetently pompous consultant, Robert Portal gets the most out of a surgeon’s running gag about blood poisoning and David Calder gives gravitas to Colenso’s old mentor, who compensates for being out of touch scientifically with a common-sense humanity that is timeless.