Play: Wit by Margaret Edson
Performed at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester and directed by Raz Shaw
Wit was first performed in 1997 and was awarded a Pulitzer Prize two years later. I knew little about it before I went to see it and what I did know was slightly off-putting, as it centres around a terminally ill cancer sufferer. What a surprise I had then, to see one of the most emotionally charged and uplifting plays I have seen. It was an amazing performance. It quite literally left me speechless. If I did award star ratings, it would have to have 5.
The central character, Dr Vivian Bearing, introduces herself to the audience at the beginning and leaves you in no doubt as to the eventual prognosis. A respected academic who specialises in 17th Century verse, particularly that by John Donne, she has spent her entire professional life researching and teaching. John Donne's metaphysical poems have been her subject matter. As the play progresses, she shows us snatches from her dealings with her students when her studies were more important than they, as people, were. She has been admitted to hospital and is now an isolated figure, quite alone. Wit is a one Act play so the story which unfolds has no breaks, no respite, like Vivian's illness.
The staging for the play is simple but effective and much use is made of the revolve to show the day to day grind of hospital wards and medical tests which she has to endure. It shows us Vivian, stripped of all her books and comforts in a stark and utilitarian hospital bed. Yet the story which unfolds is not unfailingly bleak. There is much humour. Julie Hesmondhalgh gives an emotional and gripping performance, switching between her personae of academic expert and vulnerable patient. We follow her from the initial diagnosis through a grueling series of chemotherapy treatments which she endures, realising that she has become little more than research matter for her doctors. This is a play where we are shown two sides of the medics: those who ignore the human patient in the name of research and other staff who show her compassion.
In short: an absorbing and uplifting piece of theatre.