A number of Tom Burke fans headed to London to attend a charity Christmas carol concert. One of the fans had found that this play had been recorded and was available to view at the National Theatre Archive and therefore whilst we were in the area it was thought we should see it. My review of the written play was a little on the disappointing side, so when the opportunity arose to actually view the play, I couldn't refuse.
The first thing that struck me about the play was that whereas the book seemed a slow moving affair, the play trips along at a decent pace and is filled with poignant moments of light and shade. There are subtle lines which only come alive when watching the actors perform and interact with one another; this was sadly lost in the reading of the book. The subject of the play is an emotive one, a doctor has found a cure to treat TB, eleven people need your help but you can only help ten. Who do you cure, who do you leave behind? Despite the serious nature of the topic of the play, when watching it you suddenly realise that it is actually a very funny play, full of laughs, especially when you consider how dubious the world of medicine was in that era and that these doctor's were taking on the role of God as to who should survive and who should die.
The first part of the play introduces us to the doctor's to whom the supreme decision will lie. Each doctor was brought to life magnificently, and each one had their own strong character traits which made their conversations much easier to follow. In the book they were verbose and you got a little bogged down in all the medical jargon, but here, it was much easier to follow and you concentrated more on who the characters were, rather than just what words were spoken. It was like watching a Victorian society boys club as each doctor congratulated Sir Colenso Ridgeon on his newly elevated status, pats on the back all round! This was interspersed with his servant who kept interrupting the "party" in a brusque manner to advise that there was a lady waiting for the doctor, and she would be waiting until Dr Ridgeon saw her. The wit of Shaw came beautifully to life and you noticed the subtle clever ways that he showed just how dangerous it was to let these sorts of men play with your lives. None of them really knew what was wrong with people, it was a matter of guesswork, if they used toxins on you and you survived all was well and good, if you died, you were probably too ill to be treated in any case!
After watching the self-congratulatory doctors discussing their achievements in the medical profession, the tone changes slightly as we meet Jennifer Dubedat, and we hear her beg for the life of her TB-afflicted husband, a young promising artist. (No the irony of Tom Burke - TB- playing a TB victim was not lost on me!) She has heard that the only person who could treat her young husband is Ridgeon, and he reluctantly agrees to look at her case, although one suspects it has nothing to do with the talents of her husband, but for his own interest. We then meet Dubedat and he is a complete charmer! It would be impossible to say no to him. His artwork is indeed promising, he is jolly and polite and knows just what to say to a person! He is invited to a dinner the doctor's are attending, he is a breath of fresh air, and once he has retired for the evening, the doctors start comparing notes confirming that he is indeed worthy of having his life saved. As the play continues, we soon realise that Dubedat is actually a bit of a rogue, he has borrowed money from everyone, even one of the poorest doctors, Blenkinsop, who can not even afford to pay his fare home. It was endearing hearing how he trusted Dubedat, he only lent him money because his wife had inadvertently taken his purse, Blenkinsop thought he would be paid back straightaway but Dubedat left, he must have forgotten! How naive! This naivety is quashed as we realise just how much Dubedat has borrowed, and then even worse, a servant enters to advise that she is Dubedat's wife, not the lady he was at dinner with! All of a sudden we look at Dubedat in a different light, he is a scoundrel, he is not deserving of the treatment anymore, especially as we now learn that the poor, naive Blenkinsop requires the same treatment.
Suddenly Ridgeon's disgust with Dubedat is apparent, and he leaves Dubedat to the clutches of his colleague, who will use toxins to 'cure' him. We all know how his treatments have fared in the past, therefore we know that Ridgeon has really offered Dubedat a death sentence. As we watch Dubedat's final emotional scenes, we know that the real reason Ridgeon did not want to help was because he thought that if Dubedat was dead, he would be able to secure a future with Jennifer Dubedat. It becomes clear that he was as morally corrupt as Dubedat, in fact he was worse. Dubedat was a loveable rogue who took people for their money, Ridgeon was a man in a position of trust and power and he used this to his own advantage. Even in these final scenes however, the drama has a light touch. It is physically draining sitting with a loved one as you watch them pass away. In my experience people have slipped away quietly, no strength left to talk. This is drama however, so Dubedat has a full death bed speech, and just as we think he has died, he suddenly sits up and announces "Not yet, dear. Very nearly, but not yet!"
This was a play filled with black humour, drama, strong characters and poignant moments. I left the NTA thrilled that I had had an opportunity to watch the play and see how Tom had managed to bring the role of Dubedat to life. The interaction between him and the character of Jennifer Dubedat showed that whilst she was a romantic fool and he was a bit of a rascal, they had more passion and self-worth than any of the doctor's who lorded about the stage. I also loved how watching the play, as opposed to reading it, made me question the motives of each character, the medical system in general, and most of all what gives someone the right to play God, questioning the morality of someone when their own scruples are equally corrupt. I laughed, I shed a tear, and left the NTA thinking, really, whatever happened to the Hippocratic oath?!