Tuesday, 24 July 2012

The Doctor's Dilemma at the National, or, All Love is Irrational, All of It

Note: This is a review of the final preview last night. The Press Night is today.

The publicity for this play gives the impression that it is a comedy about the medical profession. Actually, as Michael Holroyd's programme note half acknowledges it is really a play about love.

To do justice to Shaw, the first act of the play is indeed occupied with a satire of private medical practitioners as a group of them queue up to pay homage to one of their number, Colenso Ridgeon (Adam Gillett) who has just been awarded a knighthood in recognition of a revolutionary discovery in vaccination (it is never entirely clear whether this is actually deserved or not). There is some amusement here as the doctors ride their pet hobby horses, from Cutler Walpole's (Robert Portal) conviction that a simple operation will solve the blood poisoning problem which is at the root of the illnesses of 95% of the population to Sir Ralph Bloomfield Bonington's (Malcolm Sinclair) repeated declaration that treatment is all about fighting the phagocytes.

Into this medical melee comes the lovely Jennifer Dubedat (Genevieve O'Reilly) and from then on, slowly at first before the interval but with increasing power after it the play becomes a powerful commentary on the irrationality of love, most particularly Ridgeon's mad passion for Jennifer, and Jennifer's absolute incapacity to perceive any flaw in her husband – the latter marvellously played by Tom Burke.

This play is another display of Shaw's particular genius. I was recently at a professional meeting where a colleague was discussing BBC drama commissioning policy and the desirability of fitting new writing in with whatever themes the BBC might have coming up. So often one sees attempts to write plays about issues that come a complete cropper. Shaw is one of the few playwrights, in fact the only one I can think of off the top of my head, who can consistently take a theme (here the problems with the medical profession) and avoid the resulting play becoming a lecture. The major reason for that is that Shaw's characters don't seem to be shackled by the theme – they retain a life of their. There are of course wider implications but the centre is their dilemmas. Here these are quite uncomfortable for the audience – an opinion poll of views on Ridgeon's key decision would make interesting reading.

I've already mentioned several of the performers. Gillett and O'Reilly increase in conviction as the evening draws on and their final scene packs a real punch. O'Reilly in particular has a tough line to walk because the way the part is written does increasingly threaten to make the character really ludicrous – yet although I wanted to give her a good shake at various moments and tell her not to be so silly I never lost feeling for her. The one thing I would say is she could possibly tone down the weeping for a greater effect. The medics are a convincing ensemble but could do to be a bit tighter and move things along a bit more in Act 1 – hopefully that will come as the run proceeds.

This is, I think, Nadia Fall's main stage directing debut (having previously worked on productions as an Associate and staff director) and there is lots to like. The positioning and movement is generally effective and set and design complement the action – there are a number of especially effective tableaux at the close of scenes. My only slight question is whether the set needed to be quite so elaborate – I can see that if you're going to stick to Shaw's requirements with four settings it becomes unavoidable – but I did feel it slowed things down a bit between acts.

Once again, the National shows us what a great playwright Shaw was. More please.

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