Written for Spoonfed, London Theatre
“I’m a doctor and nothing gets in the way of that. Nothing!” Yeah, I had a choice, I could have started this article with a George Bernard Shaw quote. It would have been relevant to his play The Doctor’s Dilemma soon to run at National Theatre. It would have been pertinent to our times and damning of the medical profession. Or, I could have chosen a cheesy line from E.R. And yes, I chose E.R and not just because Doug Ross is a boss but because the rock star image of self-sacrificing, life-saving emergency medicine plays a part in our perception of doctors, as does our real life experiences with them and those perceptions and experiences have changed rapidly.
In the damning preface to his 1906 play, The Doctor’s Dilemma, Shaw writes: “The tragedy of illness at present is that it delivers you helplessly into the hands of a profession which you deeply mistrust, because it not only advocates and practises the most revolting cruelties in the pursuit of knowledge…but, when it has shocked the public, tries to reassure it with lies of breath-bereaving brazenness.”
His words apply to the challenge facing charismatic Dr Ridgeon (Aden Gillet) who discovers what could be a cure for tuberculosis. As he struggles to decide who to trial it on, he meets Jennifer Dubedat (Genevieve O’Reilly) whose artist husband (Tom Burke), she believes, should be saved. But Ridgeon also has a colleague who, while not as brilliant as Dubedat, may be more deserving. By the end of the play, at least one of them is dead.
Unlike the Dr. Dougs of the medical world, GPs are perhaps the most obvious target of mistrust and scepticism in 2012. Comparatively short working hours and high salaries make them an easy target and the increased inclination to run their services with business models in mind doesn’t help.
It wasn’t the case in the ’70s when director Nadia Fall’s grandparents arrived in the UK having worked in India and Africa. During a break from rehearsals of The Doctor’s Dilemma, she reminds me that back then, there was a certain status, a respect for doctors that ties in with Shaw’s notion of a “high-character”, a personality type which we, as a nation, used to assume came with the profession.
Now the personalities of doctors are viewed with more variation. TV tells us Emergency Medicine is full or rock stars, Surgery is full of pendants who think they’re rock stars and dermatologists are a little socially challenged. Nadia, who comes from a family of doctors, has something more useful to offer: “My uncle who’s a surgeon is really confident,” she says, “he’s really ambitious, quite arrogant, quite pompous but delightful and well-meaning. Members of my family who work with children are more approachable. And that’s what Shaw shows us, all sorts of doctors. There’s some quackery involved, sure, but he doesn’t paint them as evil or two-dimensional, they do have redeeming qualities and he makes us think about those.”
The quackery fuels much of the comedy and though Nadia confesses she’s not easily tickled, she admits: “the arrogance makes me laugh. The complete 180 degree turns they make on their own arguments make me laugh. So does the shock of what they’re doing. While not anything unbelievable, the power we give doctors is laughable. This play is one of those situations where you don’t know whether to laugh or cry. That’s Shaw for you, he doesn’t make things black and white and at any time – I hope this comes across in the production – what he’s doing is trying to trump you and your perceptions. So you think you’re really for one character and then hang on a minute, they’re talking rubbish. He’s showing humanity, nobody is pure evil or purely stupid, we are all so many things.”
Take the artist, Louis Dubedat who’s wife is vying for him to get onto those trials. He is easily regarded as interesting and bohemian but also amoral and not particularly likeable. But Nadia disagrees: “How dissimilar is he to Ridgeon though?” she asks. “I read the artist differently – and I find myself sometimes alone in this – but I think he’s very likeable. I find him charismatic and dangerous. He is quite beguiling and arrogant and I know lots of people, especially young men in the arts who are like that. And he is young, you know, he’s a young guy. It’s too easy to write him off as an arse and simply a blaggard like the doctors do. But I’m quite charmed by this artist.”
His wife is an equally difficult character. “She’s fighting for her out-there, addict type of husband and your instinct is to think ‘Girl please, get a grip!’ so it’s hard to empathise with her. But Genevieve [O’Reilly] – who is absolutely wonderful – has brought such a strong, earth-rooted interpretation to the part that I think she’s turned it on its head. She is vulnerable and burdened by her husband but she’s strong and driven and I really think her reading of the part is particularly refreshing. In fact, I would say it’s her story. What happens to this woman by act five is a coming of age.”
Shaw doesn’t make sweeping statements about his characters, nor does he attack doctors in his long socialist preface. Instead, he attacks our way of looking at the medical profession and the systems that we don’t challenge. He attacks a stagnation we accept. “Shaw wrote this long before the NHS” says Nadia, “but he had a vision for it and now our NHS is being slowly dismantled. Until you’re ill and vulnerable you don’t think about it and then when it affects you, boy does it affect you. Now it affects everybody.”
The Doctor’s Dilemma runs at National Theatre from 17th July until 12th September.
images by Johan Persson