|The Doctor’s Dilemma, National Theatre, review|
|Written by news desk - telegraph.co.uk|
George Bernard Shaw proves curiously cack-handed in getting under the skin of his principal characters in The Doctor's Dilemma writes Dominic Cavendish.
Those inspired to rejoice in the NHS by Danny Boyle’s spin on the Olympic Games opening ceremony might well draw added satisfaction from this Bernard Shaw revival, which reminds us how mercifully far we’ve come since the days of rampant quackery.
In his preface to The Doctor’s Dilemma (1906), Shaw argued that “Until the medical profession becomes a body of men trained and paid by the country to keep the country in health it will remain what it is at present: a conspiracy to exploit popular credulity and human suffering.”
Those sentiments are loosely echoed by the play’s main character, Sir Colenso Ridgeon, based on the celebrated bacteriologist Almroth Wright. He memorably denounces his fellow adventurers in the murky terrain of human health thus: “We’re not a profession: we’re a conspiracy.”
But in a typically Shavian flourish, Colenso is revealed as little more scrupulous than the most grasping of his kind. Confronted in his plush Marylebone consulting room by the pleadings of one Jennifer Dubedat on behalf of her poor, TB-afflicted artist husband Louis, he agrees to consider putting the chap on his breakthrough inoculation programme, even though that means someone else cops it. He’s prompted partly by Louis’s undoubted artistic talent, mainly because he fancies his chances with Jennifer in the event of her husband’s death.
That demise is then fast-tracked as the conflicted Colenso - aghast at the young bohemian’s outspoken, scrounging ways - opts to treat a poor physician friend instead. But his passion for Jennifer remains a crucial factor in the decision to leave Louis in the lurch. Never mind the Hippocratic oath, just feel the brazen hypocrisy.
It should more blackly funny, more gut-wrenching, more scalpel-sharp than alas it is. Shaw excels at a surface diagnosis of professional ills but proves curiously cack-handed in getting under the skin of his principal characters and giving them meaningful emotional life. The debate about the “value” of artists seems oddly muted. And the satire on the pseudo-science of the medics, concentrated in a delightful opening scene in which Colenso’s colleagues expound on sundry patently ludicrous cures in all seriousness, likewise runs out of puff.
Nadia Fall’s revival lends the work an air of lasting importance, thanks in part to a monumental design from Peter McKintosh, which magicks Georgian grandeur and a full-sized garret with a finesse that makes your mouth open wide. But there’s little disguising the fact that as drama, it’s shallow-breathing stuff and sometimes painfully inert.
The company injects commendable spirit into the loquacious, passing witty proceedings. There’s particularly fine work from Aden Gillett as the self-satisfied, self-deceived Ridgeon and from Malcolm Sinclair as Sir Ralph Bloomfield Bonington, unshakeable in his deathly prescriptions (“Stimulate the phagocytes!”). Genevieve O’Reilly as the appealing Jennifer supplies a lustrous female antidote to the starchy, greybeard atmosphere.
But whatever compensating sugars are added to Shaw’s medicinal “tragedy”, the production still leaves the bitter aftertaste of an opportunity let slip to dig more fruitfully into medicine, morality and human nature.