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29th January 2016

Review: Wit

Wit at the Royal Exchange Theatre, featuring Julie Hesmondhalgh, is an intensely emotional but also sharply funny story of a dying academic’s attempts to come to terms with her mortality

“It is not my intention to give away the plot, but I think I die at the end.”

Julie Hesmondhalgh plays Dr. Vivian Bearing, a stern and independent Professor of 17th century literature, who is diagnosed with stage IV metastatic ovarian cancer. “There is no stage V.” Wit covers, in a single unbroken act, her last days, hours, and minutes as she comes to terms with her mortality and observes the comparative differences of art and science—highlighting the contrast between the subject she is a doctor of and that of the doctors who treat her.

Among this darkness is a lot of comedy. Wit is comic, and you find yourself laughing during some of the most emotional scenes, often due to Hesmondhalgh’s perfectly placed dry delivery, maintaining her attitude that years of dealing with those less intelligent than herself have taught her almost to the end. Margaret Edson’s Pullitzer-winning script as well somehow manages to convey the indignity of her suffering with the respect it deserves, whilst injecting enough, well, wit, to a subject that rarely makes one laugh.

Hesmondhalgh’s performance is truly stunning—head shaven and feet bare, Julie flawlessly pitches the character between vulnerability and bravado, spending the whole play’s 100 minutes on the barren, circular stage, performing in the round with the audience watching her from all angle—meaning that she had to move continuously, helped only a little by a rotating stage and clever lighting.

Dr. Bearing’s specialty is metaphysical poetry—particularly that of the poet John Donne—that which addresses some of the largest questions humans have conceived: life, death, and God. Even at the end of her life, however, she realises that all the poetry in the world can neither save her nor make her passing dignified. At the same time, the brute force of science and medicine is no more successful, putting her through more pain than she has ever been before, as her doctors subject her to eight weeks of full-dose chemotherapy. She feels like she is more research than a patient to be saved.

In the end, it is neither her life-defining literature nor lifesaving chemicals that win out, but compassion, that of the kind nurse who sits with Bearing while she screams in pain, dignity finally gone, gives her an ice lolly, and talks through the choices available to each patient if their heart stops—resuscitate and continue the research, or pass on to be peaceful. You also witness her only visitor, her old draconian literature professor, sit with Vivian and read her a children’s book, just like those she loved aged 5.

In short, Wit was perfect, a play of contradictions capturing completely the fear and indignity that are the results of cancer, whilst also making all present smile and laugh and sympathise with all the characters. They truly deserved the standing ovation they received at the end of the performance.

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