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Matter of life and death

by
10 August 2012

Michael Caines sees a Shavian approach to medical ethics

JOHAN PERSSON

Pleading: Jennifer Dubedat (Genevieve O'Reilly) with Sir Colenso Ridgeon (Aden Gillett) in The Doctor's Dilemma

Pleading: Jennifer Dubedat (Genevieve O'Reilly) with Sir Colenso Ridgeon (Aden Gillett) in The Doctor's Dilemma

YOU can thank a theatre critic for the existence of The Doctor's Dilemma. George Bernard Shaw had already written Mrs Warren's Profession, Major Barbara, and Caesar and Cleopatra, when his fellow Ibsenite, and the drama critic of the World, William Archer, challenged him: Shaw's theatre, he wrote in a newspaper column in 1906, "is peopled by immortals". It was only through staging "crises of tragic circumstance", through drama involving death, that "profounder revelations of character" could be reached.

Shaw could hardly have resisted that. The drama he wrote in response to Archer is a masterful piece about a consumptive artist, his muse, and the doctor who could cure him - and, with the aid of some judicious cutting (of lines about Jews, vivisection, and J. M. Barrie), it thoroughly deserves its current revival in Nadia Fall's elegant production for the National Theatre.

The play begins with Dr Colenso Ridgeon at his apogee: receiving a knighthood (for his work on a cure for tuberculosis), and the congratulatory visits of his fellow-doctors, from the extremely well-connected (Sir Ralph Bloomfield Bonington, who believes in simply dosing up a patient three times a day, before breakfast, lunch, and dinner) to the humble general practitioner (Dr Blenkinsop, who can barely afford a new coat, and recommends a pound of ripe greengages as a cure-all).

Charmingly appearing amid them all is the beautiful Jennifer Dubedat, pleading with Ridgeon to save her husband Louis, an artist of genius. But Louis also turns out to be a blackguard, unafraid to borrow money or women as he pleases. Curing him, which does seem to be in Ridgeon's power, seems less appealing when the new knight considers that Blenkinsop is afflicted in the same way, and is, in some sense, much more deserving of his help.

As the American scholar Bert Cardullo has pointed out, however, in a fine essay on this play, the real dilemma for Ridgeon is tactical rather than ethical: he wants to marry Jennifer after Louis's death. Can he get away with it - that is, can he kill off her husband by knowingly putting him into less effectual care than his own, and still convince her that he has her best interests at heart? (Cardullo also points out, incidentally, that Ridgeon's first name would have reminded many in Shaw's audience of the Anglican bishop ex-communicated for his heretical views on the Pentateuch.)

The National's production of the play bears out this sense that the real dilemma, the one that inter- ests the audience, concerns the manoeuvring for position, the respectable scientist (Ridgeon) trying to gain the upper hand over the sly, silver-tongued artist (Dubedat). Aden Gillett is superb as the bachelor doctor who cannot quite bring himself to stroke Jennifer's hair when he has the chance, tentative in his tenderness for her. He uses instead what weapons come to hand: medical ones.

Tom Burke, on the other hand, makes an insouciant Dubedat, completely at ease while explaining to an audience of apoplectic doctors his defiance of conventional morality, and denying the existence of sin (although he also seems rather too robust to be the "stripling" specified by Shaw).

Genevieve O'Reilly (as Jennifer), Malcolm Sinclair (as Sir Ralph), and the rest of the cast play the comedy and the tragedy of the situation perfectly. And, between the acts set in Dubedat's studio, if you haven't spotted it already, you notice that the designer Peter McKintosh has incorporated a fine figure to eavesdrop on all the manoeuvring and pontificating about ethics, medical or otherwise: a red-cloaked figure with a scythe. . .

At the National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1, until 12 September. Box office: phone 020 7452 3000.
www.nationaltheatre.org.uk

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