Script vs Performance

“We’re not a profession, we’re a conspiracy.”

Craig and I went to the Shaw Festival this weekend and saw The Doctor’s Dilemma by Shaw. It was a good show, not necessarily because I liked the production (nor was I entirely keen on the matchy matchy costumes and the huge symbolic set pieces – Giant! Paint! Brush!) but because it allowed for discussion both on the script and the directing choices. How novel. Discussion.

I hadn’t seen or read the play and was pretty stunned by its relativity. First produced in 1906 it tells the story of Doctor Colenso Ridgeon, freshly knighted and recently behind a apparent cure for tuberculosis. He is presented with, obviously, a dilemma: with one spot left in his trial, does it go to the kind ailing fellow doctor who treats the poor, or to the immoral gifted artist with the beautiful wife? And what happens if he’s attracted to the beautiful wife?

The doctors in the play stand in fantastically high towers, each thinking their methods are the best (much better than Ridgeon) and all the others are crap. They care little for their patients thinking about the next paper they’ll write. The cure takes precedence over the cured. Throw these men in modern clothes and choose any number of modern disease, substitute certain pills for anti-toxins and this play wouldn’t be out of place in today’s theatre. That is a great find in a play.

Production wise, I felt the play was funnier than what was presented. At times, the production treated the issue so seriously that it missed certain rhythms in the text and in the characters. All in all, an awesome point of discussion. Where is the balance between script and performance? Does one outweigh the other, and why? Is it the dialogue that provides the humour, or the production? The first scene in particular was run like a freight train – to the point that it seemed like no one was listening to anything anyone had to say. One character entered and said “You don’t remember me” before another character had a chance to give a questioning glance. These guys are supposed to be the best of the best when it comes to Shaw, so they should know what they’re doing….

In terms of characterization, the high tower buffoons were the most engaging. The immoral gifted artist was the least. Here’s the thing, if we watch someone die on stage (sorry, SPOILER!) then we should care whether that character lives or dies. And neither Craig nor I could have given a rat’s ass if the artist did the hula on the back of the sofa. We had no investment in his life. Which suggests that when we meet the artist, even though he’s immoral we should love him in spite of his faults. The high tower buffoons do, and say often that they like him. How do you find the balance between immorality and likability?

And for some bizarre reason, the production just HAD to have two Rolling Stones songs to underscore the transitions. Um, and why did that enhance my experience of the play? Oh that’s right, it didn’t. What’s the balance between symbolism and realism in the performance? ( Giant! Paint! Brush!) Now if the play had done something more modern…..

The next time you go to a play, focus on the balance between script and performance. Is it even? Does one outweigh the other? Which is better? Are the two seamless?

About the author

Lindsay Price