At a moment of crisis, literature professor Vivian Bearing summons up the words of her beloved John Donne, the English poet to whom she has devoted her stellar academic career.
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
Armed with these words, Bearing can live up to her name – to a point. Beyond that, however, there are realms of pain and distress where there is no comfort or relief.
Written by Margaret Edson in 1995 (this, her one and only play, earned her a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1999), Wit deftly compresses eight months of traumatic chemotherapy into a moving and yes, witty play about life and death and the imperfect processes that take us from the one state into the other.
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Directed by Helen Tonkin, this spare and moving production realised by Sydney indie company Clock & Spiel balances the cerebral and emotional facets of a very fine play just about perfectly.
Cheryl Ward gives an outstanding performance as Bearing, a haughty, abrasive character whose perspicacity allows her to see beyond her immediate plight and observe the way she is dehumanised by doctors who are, essentially, conducting an experiment disguised as treatment. “Once I did the teaching,” she dryly observes, “now I am taught.”
Ward’s portrayal of the slow breaking down of Bearing’s physical and mental resistance to her cancer, and her shift from esteemed professor to hospital serial number is nuanced and unsentimental. She completely convinces as professor and as cancer patient.
Yannick Lawry is a brisk and believable cancer specialist. Chantelle Jamieson contributes strongly as a junior doctor whose bedside manner reflects a desire to work with cells in a laboratory rather than humans in a hospital.
Hailey McQueen radiates professional warmth as Sue, the nurse Bearing comes to rely on, and Matt Abotomey, Nyssa Hamilton and Shan-Ree Tan fill the walk-on roles – hapless English Literature students and harried hospital staff – very capably.
The play’s final minutes are a rollercoaster. The penultimate scene, in which Bearing is visited by her old mentor (an excellent Jan Langford-Penny), and in which a children’s picture book assumes the poetic grace of the great Donne, is handled with impressive delicacy and dignity. The audience is left wide open for Edson’s shattering coda – a stark reminder that, while there’s much great verse about Death, there’s often precious little poetry in it.
On opening night, a few seconds passed before anyone could applaud.