Lyttelton Theatre, London until 12 September 2012
Writer: Bernard Shaw
Director: Nadia Fall
Cast includes: Tom Burke, David Calder, Aden Gillett, Paul Herzberg, Derek Hutchinson, Genevieve O’Reilly, Robert Portal, Malcolm Sinclair
The best thing about the National Theatre in the summertime is arguably the eclectic free shows on the riverbank as part of their Inside Out season (it was jugglers smashing apples, and the NT's own take on the Olympic torch). But I left the sunny Southbank and was thankfully very entertained.
Sir Colenso Ridgeon has devised a revolutionary new treatment for TB, but like most Harley Street doctors, he will only administer his experimental therapy to the select few – the question is who? The contemporary question of 'who can afford health care?' becomes a moral one in Bernard Shaw’s script, set at the turn of the 20th century as medicine took some uncertain leaps forward.
Sir Colenso has already filled the ten spaces he has for the new treatment, but when an attractive young woman comes to plead for her talented husband’s life, he is faced with the choice: whose life is worth saving? His contemporaries only serve to add to the confusion, as their medicinal and surgical methods differ from his own, not to mention that one of their number is also suffering from consumption.
The Doctor’s Dilemma, despite its serious subject is one of Bernard Shaw’s most exciting comedies. The characters are ridiculous, and yet recognisably human, spouting witty one-liners and lengthy nonsensical tracts in equal measure. Within 15 minutes we are told the crux of the show - the ethics of life and death in our hands – and so it is quite easy to settle into the rest of the play. But each of the five acts actually twists the perspective, so we are asked to question the scientific method, the value of art, the existence of morality itself, the honour of dying and the truth of legacy – all in one funny evening.
Malcolm Sinclair as the rambling Sir Ralph Bloomfield Bonington is brilliant when he gets the stage to himself, perfectly demonstrating how these learned men are all so sure of themselves, despite their obvious ignorance. And Genevieve O’Reilly as the artist’s passionate wife Mrs Dubedat treads a fine line between innocence and sensuality, that is crushed in the most moving line of the show: “Was that death?”
I highly recommend this rarely performed classic, which can claim to strike as many chords today as it did then – a well-chosen piece and clever interpretation.
VERDICT: **** (Four Stars) Deep questions about the ethics of healthcare are painted brilliantly in this passionate and witty classic.