Right now, George Bernard Shaw’s comedy feels like a slightly terrifying look into the future: first staged 40 years pre-NHS and certainly relevant here in 2012. The medics in “The Doctor’s Dilemma” are private practitioners, little more than licenced murderers in the Shaw’s opinion (and so in those of its titular Doctor).
The Dilemma: Sir (formerly Dr) Colenso has developed a cure for tuberculosis with a near-100% rate of success. But he can only treat a few people with it. The candidates are: Louis Dubedat, a noted scoundrel with an artistic genius about him; and Dr. Blenkinsop, a good man but otherwise a nobody. Colenso has the opportunity to cure one of them, but whom? Complicating matters is the small fact that Colenso has fallen in love with Mrs Dubedat.
Written on a challenge from Shaw’s theatre-critic friend, “The Doctor’s Dilemma” is subtitled “A Tragedy” and although the gleeful exhanges of dialogue say otherwise, it sort of is. The conflict between Colenso and Mr Dubedat is one between two great, if not necessarily good, men. Herein lies the Big Problem: it’s difficult to shift from a broad comedy to a very dark one as “Dilemma” does in the second half.
The three leads — Colenso and the Dubedats — are artfully drawn in Shaw’s script, but the supporting characters muck about in two dimensions, giving a voice to both Colenso’s dilemma and the corruption of the industry. That’s not to say it’s not enjoyable — Robert Portal in particular is magnetic, chanelling Blackadder’s Lord Flashheart as a quack surgeon — but when the leads are played relatively straight, it’s strange to see so much comic relief coming from the medical misfits in the background.
The danger with Shaw is in letting the dialogue oversaturate the actual narrative, particularly when the conflicts are so psychological rather than external and physical. So hats off to director Nadia Fall, who keeps the on-stage energy constant, even through a rather jarring tonal shift between the third and fourth acts. The sets, designed by Peter McKintosh and lit by Neil Austin, deserve their own accolades as they alternate between the sterile affluence of the doctor’s office to the clutter and ironic liveliness of Dubedat’s studio.
The Doctor’s Dilemma, then, is incisive, satirical and undoubtedly relevant. If you can get past the tonal weirdness, it’s certainly worth the evening out.