Review: The Doctor in Spite of Himself

This article first appeared on the Oxford Student website on 12 March 2015.

★★★☆☆

An uproarious and self-aware comedy, The Doctor in Spite of Himself puts together an admirable performance, despite the difficult material.

The first problem to overcome with Moliere’s comedy is translating the gags, by which I mean taking the innately French humour and making it palatable to an ignorant Anglophone audience (such as yours truly). And while the play does a decent job at this, a few of the gags go into English awkwardly at best. One example that springs to mind is the line “He wears yellow and green! Is he a parrot Doctor?”. French comedy: it’s no laughing matter. Overall one gets the sense that the script has been slightly poorly translated; naturalistic the dialogue ain’t, and there are many lines completely lacking in any kind of lilt or rhythm- you feel a bit sorry for the actors. But they all acquit themselves admirably, awkward dialogue or not, and they help make the play into an entertaining sixty minutes.

The plot concerns alcoholic wife-beating woodcutter Sganarelle (Tim O’ Leary) who by a series of contrivances ends up pretending to be a physician for a wealthy gentleman’s daughter, while simultaneously trying to reunite said daughter with her forbidden lover and sexually harassing her nurse. Here we run smack into the other big problem with the play, in that we are asked to spend an hour cheering on a complete arsehole. Fortunately, the play handles this very well; O’Leary turns in a delightfully monstrous performance, and the other actors are great at projecting a sense of unease. There is a sense that Sganarelle is constantly treading a thin line between bawdy conman-ship and outright psychopathy, and O’Leary treads this line beautifully. The supporting players are also strong, with highlights including Daniel Abu as a laughably clueless nobleman, Christian Amos as a bumbling young man hopelessly in love, and Rebecca Heitlinger as the nurse Jacqueline, who is clearly channelling Catherine Tate in a wonderfully mannered comic performance.

The play also has a brilliantly dark tinge to it, with a number of jokes about the nature of the medical profession- “The best part of this profession is that the dead, of all people, are the most discreet; for you will never find them complain of the physician who has killed them”. The loving declaration that “I will not leave your side until I’ve seen you hanged!” is similarly marvellous.

If the play has a serious flaw, it’s that, like so many student productions these days, it’s a bit too self-aware for its own good; the frequent nods, asides, and at one point the sourcing of a costume from the audience are profoundly awkward, and bring the otherwise well-paced narrative to a screeching halt. Overall though, The Doctor In Spite of Himself is a blackly comic treat, and ensures that the Burton-Taylor is able to end this term on a high note.

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