Stage Door Review

The Doctor’s Dilemma

Tuesday, August 23, 2022

✭✭✩✩

by G.B. Shaw, directed by Diana Donnelly

Shaw Festival, Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake

August 20-October 18, 2022

Ridgeon to Jennifer: “Convince me that his life is more important than the worst life I am now saving”

This is the fifth time the Shaw Festival has presented The Doctor’s Dilemma, the previous occasions being in 20102000, 1991 and 1969. Of these I’ve missed only the 1969 production. Compared with the past three productions, the present production directed by Diana Donnelly in her first full-length, mainstage show for the Shaw is easily the worst. Donnelly has cut the play to such an extent that the nature of the titular doctor’s dilemma is not clear. More than that, Donnelly’s directorial technique is to throw all sorts of concepts at the play very few of which make any sense of the story.

I will quote my own summary of the action from my 2010 review: “We meet the doctor of the title, Sir Colenso Ridgeon, on the day his knighthood is announced.  Five others doctors arrive to congratulate Ridgeon on his new honour, but the one who provokes his dilemma is Jennifer Dubedat, the healthy, beautiful wife of an artist, Louis Dubedat, who is stricken with tuberculosis.  Ridgeon has received his knighthood for his experimental cure for the disease and Jennifer would like him to take her husband into his clinic.  All the available spaces, however, are full.  Ridgeon is thus confronted with at least three dilemmas.  To cure Dubedat, he would have to condemn to likely death one of the patients he has already accepted.  To make matters worse, one of Ridgeon’s friends, Dr. Blenkinsop, a GP whose practice is among the poor, has also contracted tuberculosis.  If Ridgeon is to make room for one more patient, should it be the amoral artistic genius Dubedat or the moral, self-sacrificing Doctor Blenkisop?  On top of that, Ridgeon has fallen hopelessly in love with Jennifer.  How can he certain that reason rather than self-interest will guide his decision?”

Because Donnelly has relocated the action from London in 1906 to somewhere in North America in the present, certain emendations must be made to the summary above. Donnelly’s Dr. Ridgeon does not receive a mere knighthood, but the Nobel Prize. The Nobel Prize in medicine is given for proven discoveries that have changed medicine and not for initial trials.

A second alteration is that Donnelly has only four doctors, not five, come to congratulate Ridgeon since she has totally excised the role of the Jewish doctor Leo Schutzmacher. It’s true that Schutzmacher is not necessary to the working out of the plot, but Shaw includes him to place the interaction of the other doctors with Dubedat and wife in relief. Donnelly does nothing to make up for this excision.

To make the text fit the 21st century, Donnelly adds swearing and expressions like “Oh wow!” that are not in Shaw. The main disease under discussion in Shaw is tuberculosis for which in pre-antibiotic 1906 there was no cure. Donnelly, therefore, has to change the disease to DRTB or “drug-resistant TB” whenever it is mentioned. Nevertheless, she keeps in references to doctors sending their patients to St. Moritz or Egypt for the air – valid of 1906 but not 2022.

All the flaws mentioned above are minor compared to the prime defect in Donnelly’s direction, i.e., failing to make the multifaceted doctor’s dilemma of the title clear. In her cutting of the text, Donnelly incredibly cuts Dr. Blenkisop’s remark to Ridgeon in Act 2, “I wish youd cure me. My right lung is touched, I’m sorry to say,” and the great reaction this causes among the other assembled doctors. All Donnelly does is to have Blenkinsop cough a few times as if he had a cold and then have Ridgeon leap to the conclusion that Blenkinsop has TB. Up to that moment and even after, Donnelly strangely de-emphasizes the seriousness of Blenkinsop’s illness. It is meant to be as deadly as Dubedat’s and Shaw even makes this symbolic by having Dubedat’s left lung affected versus Blenkinsop’s right lung.

Ridgeon’s further dilemma is that he realizes in his darkest moments that with Dubedat’s death the field would be clear for him to pursue the woman with whom he is already infatuated  who would be Dubedat’s widow. In the present production Sanjay Talwar who plays Ridgeon says that he is attracted to Mrs. Dubedat, but in no other way does he make this attraction nor the turmoil it causes him manifest. The play is an extended case of situations so often found in British drama where actors have to communicate feelings that are not found in the ordinary words they say. Donnelly seems unable and even uninterested in encouraging Talwar to act out Ridgeon’s emotions with either facial expressions or gestures.

The main reason Donnelly’s production is so unbalanced is that, despite the play’s title, she thinks that Jennifer Dubedat, not Dr. Ridgeon, is the main character. As Donnelly says in the Director’s Notes: “At the centre of the story is Jennifer: Shaw’s Life Force in action. Everything happens because of her”. This is wrong for three reasons. First, the play is structured around the dilemma that Dr. Ridgeon faces whether to save Blenkinsop or Dubedat. Second, Everything is in the play does not happen because of Jennifer. After all, she is not the reason why Blenkinsop or Dubedat are dying. Third, Shaw’s Life Force is a universal process, not a person.

Shaw discusses his theory of the Life Force at great length in Act 3, Scene 2 of Man and Superman (1905). As an example of how great the Life Force is Don Juan explains: “The great Life Force has hit on the device of the clockmaker's pendulum, and uses the earth for its bob; that the history of each oscillation, which seems so novel to us the actors, is but the history of the last oscillation repeated”. It is thus, not a force embodied in a single person. Rather it is a force that can bring people together: “The pair may be utter strangers to one another, ...  with no bond between them but a possibility of that fecundity for the sake of which the Life Force throws them into one another's arms at the exchange of a glance”.

Donnelly, however, is so convinced that Jennifer is the Life Force that she gives the play a far-fetched ending. We find that Jennifer has employed Minnie Tinwell (Katherine Gauthier), Dubedat’s first wife, as her secretary to help in presenting an exhibition of Dubedat’s work. Not only that, but Donnelly allows you to think that Jennifer and Minnie have married and that Minnie is carrying a baby for them. This fantasy misses the whole point of the final scene which is to make Ridgeon realize what a fool he is to have thought Jennifer loved him just because he loved her and, much worse, to chill him with the notion that he may have committed murder for the sake of this fantasy. In the best productions, such as Christopher Newton’s of 2000, this ending can have the power of tragedy. Here Ridgeon’s shame is passed over as if it were nothing.

Donnelly’s attempt to alter the focus of the play has a mostly deleterious effect on the acting. The one person most elevated by Donnelly’s approach is Alexis Gordon as Jennifer Dubedat. Gordon’s Jennifer is ardent in her pleas to Ridgeon to save Dubedat and positively radiant when he agrees to do so. Gordon has so much presence she easily dominates the stage in every scene. When she is with Dubedat she admonishes and nurtures more as would a mother than a lover. If Donnelly thinks Jennifer is the centre of the play, Gordon provides her with strongest moral and emotional centre possible.

In contrast Johnathan Sousa plays Louis Dubedat as if he were an adolescent who has never grown up. Dubedat is ready to ingratiate himself with the doctors if only to borrow money from them he never will repay. He is prepared to exploit his own death for a newspaper just to increase his fame. The one thing Sousa does not do, and that Donnelly seems to miss, is that Dubedat is supposed to be deathly ill. That’s why Jennifer seeks Ridgeon’s help. Yet, Donnelly has Sousa jumping all about his basement studio and speaking at full volume. Occasionally, Sousa remembers to cough but no more than anyone with a slight cold would do. Until his death scene, Sousa is the healthiest Dubedat I’ve ever seen.

Donnelly’s shift of focus from Ridgeon to Jennifer, leaves Sanjay Talwar out in the cold. The greatest feeling he is allowed to express toward Jennifer is puzzlement and when he states that there would be an advantage to him if Dubedat died, it comes as a surprise because Donnelly has not bothered to have Talwar reveal even any interest  much less passion in Jennifer. The conflict in Ridgeon’s motives just before Dubedat’s death should be clear, but is not. And Talwar’s Ridgeon appears merely confused rather than humiliated in the final scene at the art gallery.

Of the various doctors, Sharry Flett as Dr. Patricia Cullen is the most effective. Donnelly has changed Patrick Cullen in Shaw to Patricia, but that is no problem since it affords Flett a chance to play a strong, authoritative person with aplomb. Flett’s 29 seasons at the Shaw are telling in that she speaks Shaw’s compound complex sentences with perfect ease and understanding. There is an art to speaking Shaw’s often difficult prose, but Flett has mastered it and it is a joy to hear.

The other three actors playing doctors are newer to Shaw, but they all do very well. Allan Louis is very funny as Dr. Cutler Walpole who is convinced that all disease are a form of blood poisoning and can be cured by removing the (nonexistent) “nuciform sac”. David Adams is equally funny as Dr Ralph Bloomfield Bonington, known as B.B., whose own hobby-horse is that all diseases can be cured by stimulating the phagocytes. The one curiosity of his performance is his use of an accent that seems to wander from New Zealand to Australia to South Africa.

Jason Cadieux as Dr. Blenkisop is a welcome respite from the monomania of Walpole and B.B. His practise is directed toward helping the poor and underprivileged. As a result he is the humblest in both speech and demeanour of all five doctors.

Gillian Gallow has designed appropriately sleek modern sets for Ridgeon’s office and for the doctors’ dinner party, but she has given Dubedat a terribly grungy artist’s studio rather incredibly without a source of natural light. Rachel Forbes has created bizarre costumes from some but not all of the characters. She has Dr. Walpole appear entirely in pink (shoes, shirt, tie included) when he first appears. At the doctors’ dinner he is wearing a skirt à la various rock stars and in the last scenes he is clad all in leather. Donnelly changes Shaw’s text to say that Walpole will speak to his “husband”. Donnelly has thus reimagined Walpole not just as gay but as a sterotype given the three clichéd “gay” outfits Forbes has made for him. Is this supposed to be funny or insulting?

Forbes has the apparently heterosexual B.B. wear brash all-over print suits that again only rock stars, not ageing doctors would wear. Forbes’s strangest choice involves the Dubedats. They couple has been invited to join the doctors’ dinner party in honour of Ridgeon. Jennifer has told Ridgeon in the previous scene that they have spent their last penny in trying to find Dubedat a doctor who will take his case. Yet, somehow knowing that the dress code for the party is all-white, the Dubedats appear not only dressed all in white but in extraordinarily expensive-looking outfits suitable for the Met Gala. Jennifer wears a white crinoline cage over the top over her gown and Dubedat wears a white tuxedo with a coat so long it trails on the floor. Did no one note that the Dubedats are meant to be poor as is so obvious once we see their lodgings?

Donnelly tries to be avant garde by having characters break the fourth wall to speak directly to the audience. This works when Shaw gives a doctor expository material that is clearly meant not for those on stage but for the audience in general. It does not work when Donnelly is simply trying to show she can ruin the effect of Shaw’s text whenever she likes. She has Sousa as Dubedat break the fourth wall twice during his death scene. Once when Dubedat proclaims his allegiance to famous artists of the past - a statement that doesn’t justify trekking from the deathbed to the edge of the stage. A second time when Dubedat says he believes in Bernard Shaw (i.e., Shaw’s own fourth-wall breaking technique). There, Donnelly has Sousa go to the front and quiz the audience about Shaw’s advanced beliefs in feminism, vegetarianism and socialism. The effect is to minimize the impact of Dubedat’s death and thus of Ridgeon’s guilt for his role in it.

Those heading to the Shaw Festival who want to see a Shaw play while there would do much better to see Too True to Be Good. It may be a rarity but director Sanjay Talwar has given the play the most perceptive production it has yet received. Regular Shaw-goers would do well to avoid this year Doctor’s Dilemma. Unlike the Shaw’s previous two productions in 2000 and 2010, Donnelly gives the play a superficial and ultimately misguided reading. It criminally cheats Talwar out of plumbing the depths of one of Shaw’s most complex roles. The Doctor’s Dilemma tends to come round about ever 10 years. We can only hope the next production will be better.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Sharry Flett as Dr. Patricia Cullen, Alexis Gordon as Jennifer Dubedat, Johnathan Sousa as Louis Dubedat and Allan Louis as Dr. Cutler Walpole; Sanjay Talwar as Dr. Colenso Ridgeon; Johnathan Sousa as Louis Dubedat and Alexis Gordon as Jennifer Dubedat; Alexis Gordon as Jennifer Dubedat; Johnathan Sousa as Louis Dubedat and Sanjay Talwar as Dr. Colenso Ridgeon. © 2022 David Cooper.

For tickets visit www.shawfest.com.