The problem with George Bernard Shaw is that he couldn’t do sex: The compromising central issue of his 1906 drama “The Doctor’s Dilemma” is a sexual fatal attraction that Shaw states rather than dramatizes. By not energizing that problematic relationship, helmer Nadia Fall’s National Theater production fails to climax. But she’s as alive to Shaw’s wit as she is to his wisdom and, in her impressive National Theater debut, the unified playing of her juicy cast makes the journey unusually entertaining.
In his consulting rooms handsomely designed by Peter McKintosh, noted physician Sir Colenso Ridgeon (Aden Gillett) is at ease bantering with fellow physicians. He is, however, unseated by the arrival of Jennifer Dubedat (Genevieve O’Reilly) who implores him to save her struggling genius artist husband Louis (Tom Burke), who is dying.
To treat Louis, Colenso will have to abandoning the treatment of one of his other patients. Furthermore, the question of whether or not Louis is truly deserving moves into another gear altogether in subsequent scenes that reveal Louis’ moral compass to be entirely at variance with that of the doctor. The matter is further complicated by Colenso’s attraction to Jennifer.
That, at least, is Shaw’s proposal. But aside from the physical start he indicates when he first sees Jennifer, Gillett doesn’t give any effective illustration or animation of Colenso’s developing inner turmoil. Nor does the suitably elegant O’Reilly do much more than be gracious and grateful. Although Jennifer doesn’t lead Colenso on, she should generate more excitement in order that we can sympathize with his ruinous misreading of their situation.
Surrounding the central dilemma is an altogether more successful satire on the medical profession, almost all of which rings as true in the present as it did when written. Shaw’s leading establishment figures bestride the divide between life and death with more than a little self-aggrandizement, none more so than Sir Ralph Bloomfield Bonnington. A benevolent despot with a walrus moustache, Malcolm Sinclair plays him with exquisite pomp and an almost whispered self-love that brings the house down.
He’s balanced by a wonderfully front-footed Robert Portal as as Mr. Cutler Walpole, a gung-ho surgeon with a one-diagnosis-fits-all approach.
In the easily-cliched role of the dying artist, Burke pulls off the considerable trick of appearing wholly louche while being extremely precise. Bathed in Neil Austin’s atmospheric light in his run-down artist’s studio, Burke makes Louis’ unique selfishness appear both plausible and logical while being understandably maddening.
Even during Shaw’s heavy-handed exposition of the lengthy opening scene, Fall shows the writing off to best advantage by instigating a notably fleet pace. With the exception of one pause-ridden performance (David Calder), her actors create a flow that lifts Shaw’s wordiness into advancing argument. Even though the love plot fails to land, the production values enhance the plot’s cunning shifts of audience sympathies ensuring a largely satisfying evening.