Wit, Royal Exchange, Manchester

Wit is one of those plays you will embrace for its courageous and eloquent approach to the most difficult topic of all (namely mortality, specifically stage 4 metastatic ovarian cancer) through the metaphysical poetry of John Donne.  Also for a moving finale that will probably have you blubbing into your handkerchief, and for its – well – wit.  Or, alternatively, one that you will avoid like the, er, plague for very much the same reasons.  It is a tragedy in that you know in advance how it will end.

Wit won Margaret Edson a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize in 1999, despite it being her one and only major drama.  It also won her awards for the 2001 Mike Nichols film version, which I saw and rate as one of the few truly outstanding pieces of recent years (see here.)

Inevitably my view is coloured by having seen the movie, and raved over Emma Thompson‘s astonishing yet heartbreaking performance, but even more because portraying the play on film is a very different animal to theatre in the round, courtesy of Raz Shaw‘s production at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester (he being the perfect choice to direct this play, having gone through an excruciating battle against Stage 4 Non Hodgkins Lymphoma himself.)  Shaw had to overcome several difficulties in staging Wit at the Exchange:

  • Problem 1: hospital beds are static, so any play in which the main protagonist was lying in bed could easily become very dull.
  • Problem 2: the camera can move and delve, where the audience in a theatre is static.
  • Problem 3: the main protagonist, Dr Vivian Bearing, breaks the fourth wall and talks directly to the audience; with a conventional proscenium arch, that is relatively easy, but the very nature of theatre in the round means that wall is circular.
  • Moral of the tale:  If the audience cannot move with the character, the character must move for the audience and close down the space to retain a sense of intimacy.

Consequently, this is a heavily choreographed production, one where hospital beds, gurneys, drip stands, wheelchairs and chair carve graceful arcs around the stage and medics charge in, out and around a bare but revolving stage tastefully decked in clinical green.  We are plunged into this environment for 100 minutes without interval, 100 breathless minutes I think nobody present could either forget, still less regret.

The sense of movement and urgency is palpable, though in this drama the constant is Dr Bearing, onstage for the whole play.  For this to work requires an actor of not only consummate skill, but infinite concentration, control and versatility.  It is a huge role, comparable in scale to, say, Salieri in Amadeus, maybe even Hamlet.  It requires an actor capable of the full emotional spectrum

On film Thompson achieved this with eloquent presence, at least in part by retaining her slightly posh English self while all around her were American.  Our first sight of Julie Hesmondhalgh, an actress best known, I am told, for 15 years in Coronation Street, is less promising.  With a baseball cap to cover the character’s hair loss, a common side effect of chemotherapy, she stands centre stage, her drip stand a prop in the same way as a comedian’s mike stand, and introduces herself.  She looks and sounds like a brassy female New York City cab driver than a PhD and Professor in 17th Century Metaphysical poetry.

How deceiving appearances can be, for the more we hear of Dr Bearing, the more her passion and understanding grows on us, though even she debates at length the paradox at the heart of the metaphysical philosophy: the nature of life, death and life everlasting – though at clinical crisis points the action reduces to slow motion so we can sense the fragile balance between life and death.  Hesmondhalgh is truly enthralling; to me she is a revelation as a character studious in her eloquence yet ultimately silenced by the wretched illness

This play is apparently used to train doctors in how not to address customers, sorry patients, and you can see why.  Doctors Kelekian (Tom Hodgkins, giving the bearing and distinction of Timothy West, of whom he is a doppelgänger) and Posner are thrilled with their research and explain to Bearing in detailed medical jargon why she is at the forefront of their research – or rather, her ovaries are, this being a very depersonalised service where the patient might well be a car on a ramp having the big end replaced.

Bearing barely hears a word, her mind whirling through the essence of life and mortality, personally via memories, and in the greater scheme of things through the words of Donne.  At one point she launches into a lecture until brought down to earth by the necessity of further tests.  She bemoans how she is critically ill, not through her cancer but through the treatment for her cancer, which has shredded her immune system.

Posner has dreams of becoming a truly great researcher:  he marvels at the capacity of cancer cells to keep growing, though as a physician he suffers awkwardness and embarrassment with his patient, reminiscent of House.  He also attended Bearing’s class in  metaphysical poetry, for which he was awarded an A minus; after a brutal internal examination, Bearing wishes she had given him an A.  His previous experience of her emotionally skews his treatment of Bearing to her detriment.  Esh Alladi does a fine job of articulating Posner’s excruciating personality matched by his respect for the woman now totally under his command.  How life reverses our roles.

Julie Legrand as Bearing’s mentor, E M Ashford DPhil, is equally inspiring.  She has also returned across the Atlantic, by comparison to Eileen Atkins‘ Scottish version of the same character, but just the same she had me in floods of tears as she visits the sedated Bearing very near death and reads The Runaway Bunny before departing with Horatio’s words from Hamlet, “May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”  Poignant does not begin to describe it.

Were I to criticise any character, it would be Jenny Platt‘s Nurse Susie Monahan, and another Corrie veteran.  Hers was the only American accent that did not ring true with authenticity, and indeed the only playing that felt like acting by numbers.  Monahan’s mistake with soporific (“I don’t know about that but it sure makes you sleepy”) was an opportunity missed, in that the joke fell flat.  Not that Wit is a play without humour – far from it. Bearing displays ample gallows humour, not least answering “fine” as the medics ask her how she is.

Shaw’s production is deeply affecting and works at multiple levels: more than that you cannot ask of any play or director.  At times it seems too mobile for its own good, but works best on the blank stage with just the charismatic Hesmondhalgh articulating the ironic truth about cancer, with help from her omnipresent but sadly departed sidekick, John Donne.

Hesmondhalgh brings out the best from the script and brings through the shades of meaning at every turn.  She is not Thompson, nor does she try to be though her interpretation is certainly worthy of note. Her finest and most poignant moment needs no  words: as the medics bungle by trying to resuscitate Bearing in spite of her DNR code, she steps off the bed and watches from a distance as the spirit of Bearing; then, freed of her terrible illness, she discards her hospital gowns and walks gracefully and fully naked into the ghostly beyond – a deeply affecting moment, one that Donne would have appreciated only too well.

Inspiring stuff, highly recommended if your levels of emotional tolerance will stand the experience.


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