By George Bernard Shaw
Directed by Nadia Fall
Venue: Lyttelton Theatre
Date: Wednesday 12th September 2012
I’m going through the annual process of getting my ears syringed, so I decided beforehand that I’d have to put any loss of dialogue down to the cotton-wool effect of the olive oil. As it happened, I found the dialogue very clear throughout, particularly during the second half when my left ear cleared and I could hear very well. The only down side was the couple behind us; coughing is an acceptable sound effect in a play that deals with consumption, but it helps to keep it to the stage. Even so, the performance was very enjoyable and the production better than my experience of it.
The play reminded me of Surprises, in that it presented ideas for the audience to ponder while giving them a fair number of laughs into the bargain. The ideas this time concerned the moral aspects of medical rationing – a very topical subject – and although the stage debates were entertaining, I felt so little sympathy for the artist and his genuine(?) wife that there was no dilemma for me whatsoever. Of course the doctor of the title, the newly knighted Sir Colenso Ridgeon, had more of a problem. A bachelor, he fell in love with Mrs Dubedat as soon as he laid eyes on her. His initial snap decision to help her husband was soon challenged as more information came to light, and then the conflict became complicated by his desire for Mrs Dubedat to become a widow – what should he do?
The decision was never in much doubt despite the pontificating by all and sundry, and so the artist died in serious poverty leaving a number of excellent paintings, a deeply saddened widow and a plethora of debts. The chap who took his place in the drug trial was never seen on stage again either, although his improved health and prosperity were reported to us. The final scene, with Ridgeon attending the first posthumous exhibition of Dubedat’s work, attempted to resolve the play with a confrontation between the remarried widow and Ridgeon, but the arguments were so woolly-headed that they didn’t work for me. Never mind, the cast had built up such a supply of good will during the rest of the play that I didn’t mind the ending, and at least the final scene was short.
The costumes and sets were absolutely fantastic, as befits the National’s workshops. The opening scene was set in Ridgeon’s study, which had as much dark wood and leather as one could wish for, as well as a drinks tray and a wayward housekeeper (Maggie McCarthy) who bossed her employer around as if she were his nanny. His knighthood had just been announced, and various members of the medical profession called by to congratulate him, from fellow knights Sir Patrick Cullen and Sir Ralph Bloomfield Bonington through some GPs he’d known during training, to the lowest of the low – a surgeon! Mr Cutler Walpole (Robert Portal) was the flashiest of the group, and utterly convinced that everybody who was suffering anything was suffering from blood poisoning and needed their something-or-other sac removed (a spurious anatomical spare part). Mind you, he was doing very well out of it, and we found it very funny as well.
The assembled doctors gave us an insight into the various medical attitudes of the day, and quite a few laughs too. David Calder was great fun as Sir Patrick, an Irish doctor who may well have represented Shaw’s own views in the play. He poked fun at everyone while still having some sensible things to say, and with his advanced years he was able to comment on how the medical fashions came round on a regular basis. Sir Ralph was played by Malcolm Sinclair and this was an excellent performance. A Royal physician, he professed the same cure for everything and by some lucky fluke hadn’t killed off anyone important. His use of Ridgeon’s formula on one of the Princes had coincided with the Prince recovering, which may have led to Ridgeon’s knighthood. His pomposity was leavened by his knowledge of how the establishment worked, and Malcolm Sinclair played him with great authority and impeccable comic timing.
The successful and rich GP was represented by Dr Leo Schutzmacher, played by Paul Herzberg. With his foreign background and slight accent, it was no surprise to find out later that he was Jewish, although I wasn’t aware of that in the first act. He’d settled in a manufacturing town somewhere north of London and made so much money that he could now retire. The other GP, Blenkinsop, was played by Derek Hutchinson, and he represented those doctors who treated ordinary folk, clerks and shop assistants and the like. He couldn’t earn much because his patients couldn’t afford the expensive cures; nor could he, which is why he was suffering from tuberculosis himself as we learned in act two.
Any of these doctors would have put you off going to the medical profession for life. Their silly debates and insistence on unproven remedies, or using proven remedies for every possible ailment, were humorous if worrying. The issue of who to treat – worthy Blenkinsop or unworthy but talented Dubedat – was clouded by their differing approaches to treatment; ultimately it all came down to Ridgeon’s decision, and he chose the ‘worthier’ man. Being fond of art and beautiful things made the decision harder for him, as did his attraction to the artist’s wife, but the choice was a no-brainer as far as I was concerned.
It was good to catch this Shaw play at last – we’d missed earlier productions, and although some of his plays are done regularly (e.g. Pygmalion, Arms And The Man) there can be long gaps between productions of the others (and then three come along at once – if only!). Personally I would prefer to see more of Shaw and less of Chekov, but that’s just me; as I get older the ‘idea’ plays come to be more interesting.
© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me