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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Doctor's Dilemma
Lyttelton Theatre  Summer-Autumn 2012

Shaw's 1905 drama typically mixes satirical comedy with open debate on moral and social issues. Both comedy and debate are very effective and engrossing, though they occasionally sit uncomfortably together. 

An eminent physician has developed a cure for tuberculosis, but his program can only handle a very limited number of patients. This means that every time he chooses a patient to admit, he is condemning someone else to death. 

Compounding the problem, his current candidates for a single slot are a brilliantly talented young artist and a fellow doctor and friend. Compounding it even further, the artist is a totally amoral rotter and the doctor, however honest and dedicated, is not especially good at his job. Compounding it yet further, the physician making the choice is in love with the artist's wife. 

Shaw sets up every one of these issues – the right of doctors to choose who will live, the relevance to that choice of moral judgements or personal feelings, an artist's claim to be above ordinary morality, even whether it is better in some ways for an artist to be dead – for discussion and debate, along with a few others, like the argument among several doctors over proper treatments. 

And Shaw, almost uniquely among world dramatists (Stoppard and Hare can do it occasionally), makes intellectual debate dramatically alive, as involving and suspense-filled as any onstage action. 

Meanwhile, the playwright and audience also have a lot of fun, particularly at the expense of the collection of physicians, colleagues of the central character, who each have their own hobby horses and pet theories about medicine. One is convinced he has found the wonder drug cure for all ills, another says surgery is the all-purpose answer, another just collects his fees and lets most patients get better on their own. 

There's also comedy in the honourable men's consternation when the artist refuses to play by their social rules or to be cowed by their stuffy disapproval. And, though things do get a little serious and morally muddied here, there's something ridiculous about the middle-aged doctor mooning over the younger woman and rather surprised at her reaction when he declares himself. 

So, a lot of easy laughter at fairly easy targets, alternating with thought-provoking debates on issues that matter. Aside from the occasional grinding of gears as we switch from one to the other, what keeps this from total success? 

You may find yourself bothered, perhaps later rather than sooner, by the realisation that there is really nobody to like here. The doctor is prepared at least to consider killing a man to get at his wife, the artist is a total rotter, the wife is blindly dedicated to him and not above a little selected flirtation to achieve her ends, and the other doctors are all fools of one sort or another. 

Shaw previously published a collection of 'Plays Pleasant and Unpleasant', and a vague air of unpleasantness hangs over this play, spoiling the fun just a little. 

A graduate of the National Theatre's Directors Programme, Nadia Fall has extensive fringe and touring company experience, and handles her first major assignment with admirable clarity and authority, defining characters, sustaining tone and guiding the play over its potentially awkward shifts in mode. 

Aden Gillett captures all the internal contradictions of the dedicated doctor confused by love, and even allows the risk of losing our sympathy. Genevieve O'Reilly embodies all the fervour and monomania of the dedicated wife and acolyte while letting us see a degree of wiliness and awareness of her sensual power. 

Tom Burke smoothly navigates the depiction of a scoundrel with the irresistible charm of the totally unapologetic, and David Calder quietly steals scenes as an older doctor who has seen it all before and is happy to tell us so repeatedly.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - The Doctor's Dilemma - National Theatre 2012   

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