In the wake of the Almeida's captivating revival of The Deep Blue Sea in 1993, producers have been busily disinterring everything Terence Rattigan ever wrote. Before that, Noel Coward's tarnished reputation had been dusted down with successful revivals. But, outside houses such as the National, most of the plays of Bernard Shaw have remained on the shelves.
Received wisdom has it that Shaw is a bore. His plays carry the odour of cultural duty, worthiness and - worst of all - wordiness. Like a headstrong adolescent, but with far less fun involved, Shaw has gained himself "a bad reputation" that translates into box-office poison. But certain theatres have reversed expectations. In 1996, Neil Bartlett tore away the encrustations of popular misconception with a sharp-eyed production of Mrs Warren's Profession at the Lyric Hammersmith. Then, last year, David Hare revived Shaw's grand, Chekhovian Heartbreak House at the Almeida. It played to packed houses. Now Shaw is back at this address in Michael Grandage's production of The Doctor's Dilemma.
Grandage is perfectly aware of "the Shaw problem". He even offers up a quote from the playwright Peter Nichols: "Oh Bernardette Shaw, what a chatterbox. She natters away from arsehole to breakfast-time and never sees what's staring her in the face." Hardly a remark to guarantee confidence and advance booking. Grandage even agrees with him. "A lot of that is true. I love Heartbreak House and Candida but there are a lot of boring ones, including hundreds of one-act plays. But The Doctor's Dilemma is an intensely passionate piece."
The play was written in Cornwall, where Grandage comes from. He believes that, in addition to the Cornish central character of Jennifer, much of the play's spirit derives from there.
"Apart from the central dilemma about who to treat, there are the huge great Shavian dilemmas running right through it: love and honour, youth and age, art and science ... they're all argued with the same passionate spirit he gives to this Cornish woman who emerges through the love story to become the great Shavian emancipated woman."
Discovering that Shaw wrote it in Mevagissey and finished it on the train from St Austell to London made complete sense. "Apart from anything else it's got the rhythm of the train: it goes like the clappers."
Other directors might succumb to selling the play on the grounds of its relevance. These days, the finest compliment you can pay a play foolish enough to have been written more than, say, five years ago is not to praise its dramatic vigour, rigour, or craft, but rather to herald its topicality. Absurdly, relevance has turned from being an interesting consideration into drama's chief purpose. Over-eager publicists gush breathily down the phone telling you this play is "really good because, well, goodness, it's just so topical". God forbid that anyone should consider reviving a play whose chief concerns don't precisely parallel what's going on outside the theatre at this very minute.
Yet some plays do mysteriously continue to address the ills of society years after they were written. Thanks to the recent activities of Robin Cook, Peter Hall's current West End revival of Shaw's 1905 arms-trade drama Major Barbara suddenly seems as crucial as Newsnight (but with better costumes).
The same applies to The Doctor's Dilemma. Timely debates about fundholding, the patients' charter and the future of the NHS make this 1906 dissection of the morals of the medical profession powerfully "relevant", but that's not why Grandage is directing it. Like many decisions in theatre, it is more a case of coincidence than contrivance. In 1986 he was working as an actor at the Royal Exchange in Manchester and wanted to play the character of Louis, but the project foundered. He has wanted to do the play ever since.
Three years ago, he turned himself into a director. After just three shows, the Almeida's artistic team of Jonathan Kent and Ian McDiarmid offered him the chance to do a Shaw that could tour to the Malvern Festival, which they are co-producing for the first time. And lo, it came to pass.
The fact that this has been a long-cherished dream does not mean that Grandage regards the text as sacrosanct. He has even dared to take out the blue pencil, a distinctly risky venture given that trustees of writers' estates are often likened to crusty museum curators, vigilantly hanging "Do Not Touch" signs over the work. When Deborah Warner dared to change one of Beckett's stage directions in Footfalls, the estate banned all further performances of her production.
To his surprise and delight, Grandage has had the reverse experience: "I rang up Michael Holroyd and said, 'There are a couple of cuts I'd like to make, but I understand it's not possible ...' But he immediately said, 'No, please, please ... we need to make these plays live for now.'"
Grandage has taken a similarly enlightened attitude to the production itself, keeping to its original period but stripping away such dowdy, stuffy staples as the expected fireplace and French windows. Shaw's original audiences had been weaned on 19th-century theatre, which was more to do with spectacle than playwriting. It is hard to recover the audience's shocked involvement in his revolutionary dramatic debates and ricocheting arguments, but almost a century later the intention is to re-create that immediacy, thus rendering a past play vividly present.
Over the course of the century, playwrights have developed different dramatic means and objectives. Expressionism, social realism, absurdism and physical theatre have rightly replaced the techniques of Shaw and his contemporaries, some of which are now regarded as being hectoring. Yet only six years after Shaw's death, Look Back in Anger, Osborne's 1956 play which is recognised as one of theatre's watersheds, shares Shaw's browbeating tone.
Grandage believes Dilemma has as much energy, lust, love, jealousy and rage as Osborne's play. "I think Shaw went out of fashion because somewhere along the way someone redefined how you do passion on stage."
If the Shaw argument has been lost, something else may have gone with it. "He needs all those so-called 'old-fashioned' techniques. It's the same with Wilde, Orton or Coward. In most contemporary plays, sentences don't last longer than about 10 words. With Shaw, you have to know how to breathe, to gather up a whole sentence and carry it through to the end. If you don't have that technical facility, then the play is dead. There's exposition, development and resolution all within one huge speech. If the audience are on the resolution while you're still on the exposition, we're all doomed and the play is on the floor."
The other imperative is to live "on the line". "That's the problem with telly discipline ... there's a contradiction in terms ... but all those people on EastEnders: they do all the acting and then do the line. I keep pestering my cast about this, yelling at them in the rehearsal room. There's wonderful acting going on but if you marry that to the line, not before it, then the text takes off and the play doesn't last four hours."
He is exasperated by those who think this portentous pausing is rather good acting. "It drives me mental. So-called 'good actors' make a living out of it. When a line begins with 'Oh', they invariably look into the middle distance, sigh, and then say 'Oh, I believe ...' What do they think the 'Oh' is there for?"
The other besetting sin he is sternly policing is the patronising business of "thoughtful" acting. "Actors who have a wonderfully quick speed of thought in life, walk on stage and they ... just ... speak a ... little ... bit ... slower, because the audience needs help. They don't, they're very sophisticated. Give the play the real speed of thought and it will live."
Such attention to technique is only to be expected from a former actor. Since giving up, he says, he hasn't given acting a second thought, but 14 years' experience of it makes him alive to the the crucial business of welding a company together through performance style.
Ultimately, however, his answer to "the Shaw problem" is simple. "Seize on the central passion of the narrative, go with it and let it happen. If you present theatre, then it can be as contemporary a play at the end of the century as it was in 1906." He stops short, surprised at his own fierce resolution. "There you are. That's the objective."
Opens tonight at the Almeida, London N1 (0171-359 4404) and touring.Reuse content