“I’m not controversial, I’m just uncompromising”- Dr. Vivian Bearing
Written by Margaret Edson, a schoolteacher from Washington D.C, ‘WIT’ was first produced in 1995 and has since won a Pullitzer Prize. The one act play requires its audience to tolerate a grave subject matter, as protagonist Dr. Vivian Bearing, who has been diagnosed with late-stage ovarian cancer, is sent to a New York teaching hospital for eight debilitating stages of treatment, on full power.
Confined to a hospital bed with her life drawing to a close, and with the memory of her academic and didactic past as her coping mechanism, Vivian discovers forgiveness, kindness and above all her true self in her final moments. Despite the moribund nature of Vivian’s situation, she provides real moments of comedy gold at times. A series of dark sardonic lines at the beginning of the play provoked a gleeful reaction within the audience, as Miss Bearing began to enchant the audience with her directness and intensity.
Director Raz Shaw has ensured that the production is authoritative and fiercely paced after gaining generic foreknowledge on the play’s subject, through experiencing cancer himself. There were a number of sharp and engaging supporting performances on display, with Esh Alladi – who played Jason Posner – shining as an audacious medic and an attendee of Vivian’s poetry class.
The stage set is sparse throughout the duration of the play, as the only components present are the hospital equipment, notepads and chairs used for brief conversations. However the scantiness of props and an overall setting makes Julie Hesmondangh’s (Vivian Bearing’s) deliverance appear more striking and imposing, whilst the Royal Exchange Theatre’s evolving stage enabled the lead actress to be pervasive.
Therefore this vacuous setting really does aid in bringing the issue of humanity and amicability to the forefront, despite Vivian trying to cling on to her obsession of John Donne and metaphysical poetry in large parts of the play. Vivian speaks in an exalted, melodramatic and overt manner as she discusses the importance of her poetry, which subsequently implies her vexation of the difference between her intellectual stupor and her open-hearted true self.
For example in a soliloquy, whilst holding a convoluted facial expression, she bellows “Brevity is the soul of wit”. In addition, the desolate stage setting appears to symbolise Vivian’s loneliness, as we learn of her parents’ passing and her lack of penetration within the romantic sphere.
Towards the denouement of the play, Miss Bearing realises that she cannot continue to choose knowledge over amiability. As she analyses John Donne’s 16:09 poem, which is her chosen favourite, swirling sonnets are projected onto the stage to the point where they overlap and become unrecognisable. This moment signifies her fading desire to read and analyse metaphysical poetry, and more specifically the work of John Donne.
Miss Bearing’s nurse, Susie Monahan, shares a telling moment of laughter with the protagonist, and from this point on Miss Bearing’s prioritises the concept of kindness, as her need to be knowledgeable diminishes. Throughout the play Vivian is reluctant to interact with the people trying to help her, although a moment symbolic of her changed ways emerges when she decides to share her popsicle with Susie, a companion who eventually helps Vivian find her true self.
TNT Entertainment Billy Rooney