THE DOCTOR'S DILEMMA: Half a century after his death, give or take a year or two, this is proving a vintage season for George Bernard Shaw: first a classic revival by the Peter Hall company at the Piccadilly of Major Barbara, and now a no less brilliant return to The Doctor's Dilemma at the Almeida. Both plays remain almost alarmingly topical, the first in its treatment of poverty and armed warfare and the second in its discussion of medical ethics -- specifically, whether any doctor has the right to decide who shall live and who shall die.
Both are essentially conversation pieces, but one of the dilemmas of the Dilemma has always been its amazing lurch back into Victorian melodrama, with a willful genius of an artist dying onstage before our very eyes, and then a wonderful twist in the tail of the final scene in the art gallery, wherein an effectively murderous physician discovers that his romantic rival has, beyond the grave, had the last laugh after all.
At the Almeida (and soon to go on national tour), Michael Grandage's new production has learnt the first lesson of Shaw's medical lecture, which is that you need an all-star cast of surgeons to play it out: thus we get Ian McDiarmid as Coleo Ridgeon, Bernard Horsfall as Cullen, Martin Jarvis as Cutler Walpole and Tony Britton as Bloomfield Bonnington in what must be one of the starriest ensembles ever assembled -- even by that theatre on its current wave of international triumphs.
Once you have the doctors assembled to decide on the life or death of Louis Dubedat, genius or charlatan depending on your view rather than Shaw's, you also have to deal with his ever-loving wife, enchantingly played now by Victoria Hamilton. Even here, though, Shaw leaves the verdict with us. Is she to be forgiven for whatever effort she has to make to save the life of her artist husband, or is she herself no less scheming than the rest of a largely double-faced ensemble? Certainly the speed of her eventual remarriage must give us pause to doubt, if not to censor.
As Dubedat, James Callis also pulls off the double, suspect for so much of the evening and then almost heartbreaking in the great purple-passage dying speech about Velasquez and the precedence of art over mere life. Time and again, Shaw's genius here is to ask all the right questions and then, just when we start to think he has the answers, to pull the ground from under us and send us back to the beginning of the puzzle.
So far from being as didactic as he is usually accused of being, The Doctor's Dilemma lives on precisely because -- like Alfred Doolittle in Pygmalion -- it remains as a play so very doubtful about the strongholds of middle-class morality.
THE OLD NEIGHBORHOOD At the Royal Court Downstairs, hitherto (and hopefully soon again) Duke of York's, the new David Mamet The Old Neighborhood, recently seen on Broadway with Patti LuPone, starts as brilliantly as any of his recent work. Two men in Chicago are discussing the current state of Jewishness, with especial reference to whether it would have been better to be a Jew in Europe -- with everything from the pogroms through Fiddler on the Roof to Hitler -- than in America where nowadays it seems to make precious little difference what or who you are.
From that bleak and brilliant start, we go downhill; one of these men (Colin Stinton; the other in the performance of the evening is Linal Haft) then decides to revisit his past in the forlorn hope that he might thus rediscover his present and maybe even his future; but in scenes first with his sister (an angry Zoe Wanamaker), and then a former lover (a haunting Diana Quick), it soon becomes clear that nostalgia is not the answer either.
The trilogy lasts only 90 minutes in its entirety, but somewhere along the way we seem, on both sides of the footlights, to lose the plot.