Review: The Doctor’s Dilemma at the National Theatre

Genevieve O’Reilly (Jennifer Dubedat) and Tom Burke ( Dubedat). Photo Johan Persson

I went to The Doctor’s Dilemma without expectations. I knew nothing about the George Bernard Shaw play (although, unsurprising, it had doctors in it). Even without expectations, in the first twenty minutes or so, the play and production seemed set to disappoint.

Fortunately, I am pleased to report that the initial bad omens were not fulfilled and the evening turned in a very engaging, playful, darkly comic theatrical experience. This is a comedy (maybe) about death and love, where tragic things are funny and funny things are sad.  Not knowing anything about the play proves a huge advantage as the shifting of perceptions is a huge pleasure. A recurring theme is knowledge and deception, but characters and audience end up with very few certainties and answers.

The character of Dubedat needs an actor with huge charisma, and Tom Burke rises to the challenge splendidly. As Dubedat, he is playful without being shallow, mysterious yet transparent, and inappropriately profound. He also pulls, as far as I am concerned at least, a magnificent double bluff that left me feeling a tiny bit guilty.

With her entrance, Genevieve O’Reilly introduces much needed warmth and  she carries the emotional weight of the play with ease. Her sincerity is so striking that bends the audience’s perception at its will. It’s also the second time within the year that she plays the wife of one of the Design for Living boys (she co-starred with Andrew Scott in Emperor and Galilean), an envious position indeed.

Aden Gillett as sir Colenso. Photo Johan Persson

This is the first time I have seen Aden Gillett on stage and looking at his CV, he has a lot of regional stage credit (London’s loss quite clearly). His sir Colenso is quiet and thoughtful, but his unspoken thoughts have tremendous energy, and his one unhinged explosive moment towards the end is a marvel.

The set has warm earthy textures that side with the tragedy undercutting the comedy,  and the Lyttelton stage pulls some nice and almost poetic tricks.

Which is not to say the production is without problems: some of the “comedy” acting is too broad and the first half an hour is stodgy. The introduction of Jennifer brings dynamism and warmth, but still the play only truly takes off at the second half.

Entry no 4 in the Hamlet Challenge: This is clearly a play primed for the Hamlet Challenge: not only is there a lengthy speech where quotes from Hamlet get twisted and weaved into a comic fabric (think Monty Python doing Hamlet and you won’t be far off), but also, in this production at least,  Hamlet is a tangible presence: a skull, high up on the coat hanger at Dubedat’s studio, oversees proceedings at all times. And certain scenes, especially at the second half, are set up as the negative print of the Shakespeare play (Tom Burke will make a fine Hamlet one day).

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