W;t

Technically W;t, but let’s call it WIT, is a Pulitzer Prize Winning Play by Margaret Edson.  WIT charts how a professor of metaphysical poetry deals with stage four ovarian cancer.  Except that it doesn’t just do that.  WIT really is a celebration of what makes life what it is, and how we deal with the complexity, fragility and irrationality of life.  This is a play about life and not about death.

Right from the start, the play makes its intentions clear.  The set design – empty, bathed in a pale green/blue light – is clean and clinical, yet also very beautiful.  Vivian Bearing (Julie Hesmondhalgh) walks on stage with the house lights still on and introduces herself.  Throughout the ninety minutes there is a wonderful uncertainty as to what extent Vivian knows she’s in a play, and her ability to control the action.

Julie Hesmondhalgh’s portrayal of Vivian is astonishing and utterly convincing, pulling together the disparate elements of comedy, drama and philosophy.  From the moment she is told ‘you must begin with a text, Miss Bearing, not with a feeling’, the character is firmly set in place.  This is a person who deals with life’s complexities through analysis, control, and structure; ‘I thought being extremely smart would take care of it’.  In many ways her doctor, Jason Posner, is her medical equivalent, driven by research and not the person behind the patient.  It’s a fascinating set up.  The nurse (Jenny Platt) shows the compassionate side of being human, and the moving way in which Vivian embraces an element of this.  Technically, there is a stylish use of set rotation, and lighting is exceptional.

But there is a second play mirrored in the first, a flawless exploration into the fragility of human life using the poetry of John Donne.  Just under the surface is a whole world of material that mirrors the central themes of this play.  John Donne’s poems are on the surface very complicated and hard to understand, but in fact he himself is searching for answers, mirroring how Vivian has spent her life looking for answers in Donne’s poems.  ‘The speaker of the sonnet has a brilliant mind…but in the end he finds God’s forgiveness hard to believe, so he crawls under a rock to hide.’  Vivian too hides from the realities of life by hiding under the complexity of these poems.  She is ill-equipped to deal with the reality of what is happening to her.

It’s a brave decision for the Royal Exchange to perform this play.  It is an exceptional text, and this was an astounding performance.  There is no question that this is one of the highlights of the year.

Theatre lover, amateur director, occasional actor, writer.

2 Responses to “W;t”

  1. I know that we saw the same performance tonight so the following – completed before I saw your own thoughts – may chuck something different on the fire:

    The metaphysical poet John Donne provides the soundtrack to this play, with his meditations on love, death, and religion at the core of the protagonist’s academic life. But as poetry scholar Vivian Bearing faces her own imminent death, from advanced ovarian cancer, she plumbs Donne’s emotional sensibilities rather than the intricacies of his intellectual gymnastics. She explores, in flashbacks and dream sequences, some of the experiences which have shaped her life. She also commentates throughout, directly to the audience, on the medical processes which are dehumanising her by turning her into a research project, and on the progress of the play which reconstructs her dissolution. Spoiler alert, she warns: “I think I die.”

    This is a play which, like its lead character, is in your face from the outset. Vivian Bearing is a ballsy, uncompromising intellectual with no time or sympathy to spare for those who cannot live up to her exacting standards. She opens the play without fanfare, treating the audience as if it were an undergraduate class of unworthy literature students, dressed the while in a humiliating hospital gown and wheeling a saline drip. She is smart, sassy, with a vicious sense of humour, and a no-nonsense bluntness which she readily transitions from humiliation of lazy students to a tough-minded acceptance of the fight ahead, and her willingness to take it on.

    Vivian signs up for a radical experimental treatment of her cancer, and we watch as the medical procedures (internal examinations, catheters and scans etc.) gradually erode the fierce intellectual firebrand, and reduce her to a scared unloved child, who has agonisingly “learned to suffer”. Her doctors, while recognising her intellectual power, are neither concerned with her intelligence or her suffering, but focused solely on her value for research purposes. As a painstaking researcher herself, Vivian can champion their unflinching search for new truths, but as a patient, their lack of compassion and concern compounds the humiliation of their treatments. It is an irony of which Vivian is only too acutely aware.

    This is a powerful play, and for many, the subject matter will make it uncomfortable viewing. But there is also considerable humour, and not all of it is “black” or even bleak. Vivian’s satirical sideswipes at the medical minions and the tick-box niceties of the physicians who treat her help to maintain our sympathy with the central character, while defusing some of the more excruciating clinical encounters.

    There are performances worthy of the power of the piece, not least from Julie Hesmondhalgh as Vivian, Esh Alladi as Jason Posner, her former student and now her oncologist, and Jenny Platt, as the “dumb” nurse, whose innate humanity and compassion carry the weight of the audience’s engagement with Vivian.

    Julie is never off stage, and scarcely out of the central focus of the drama. She talks directly to the audience, as chorus to her own tragedy, and commentator-in-chief on the absurdities of the situation, even apologising for the “corny” nature of her own deathbed scane. Julie has to anchor our sympathy with the destruction of Vivian as a power, and then a person. She maintains great dignity, despite the indignities inflicted on the character. She attracts but never milks our sympathies. And she is utterly convincing as the no-holds-barred academic American tyro.

    There are many other positives too in the ensemble support, and technical delivery of the play. Great use is made of the revolve stage. Sound and light effects for medical procedures are very effective, and perfectly synchronised. Projection of key Donne sonnets onto the stage area helped to reinforce the metaphysical and academic themes. The choreography of medical team interventions was slick, and credible. Slow-motion sequences were well-judged and well executed.

    There are caveats though, and two of these are to do with sound. The occasional amplification of voices was a distraction, and the use of incidental music to add a soundscape background to a solemn speech actually distanced it from the audience, sometimes destroying the very emotional intensity it may have been intended to create.

    Those who have suffered alongside loved ones in the final stages of cancer know how much “shrinkage” occurs, as the cancer patient diminishes psychologically and physically as the disease bears down. While Julie Hesmondhalgh unquestionably communicated the pain and suffering of Vivian Bearing in her final hours, she might also have diminished her presence more, to greater render the final whittling effect of the cancer.

    • QuietManDave says:

      Yes, it’s a good review, and I agree with what you say. I was trying to explore the very subtle subtexts which I thought she brought out beautifully, perhaps try to look at the play a slightly different way. I think there were a few times when people were laughing and I thought ‘but you’ve missed the subtle point she’s trying to make here’. Good to see you in any case.

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