Friday 12 February 2016

Wit – Royal Exchange, Manchester

[seen 02/02/16]

On paper Wit is probably not my sort of thing. It’s a Well-Written Play (Margaret Edson); it’s definitely smart: imagine a less surreal, playful, American take on writing a Tom Stoppard play and then invest it with a great deal more sincerity. Formula: take a Big Thing (in this case: cancer), take a Big Artist (in this case: 17th century poet John Donne), and use one to excavate the experience of the other.

Dr Vivian Bearing (Julie Hesmondhalgh) is an American English Literature professor. Who gets cancer. The play is 1hr40 of her meta-theatrically acknowledging the audience and telling her story. A story in which she knows she’ll end up dead. As literary critics go, she’s something of an anomaly. Hers is very much a school of mathematical, almost surgical scholarship. She addresses us as she would her students, barking sardonic observations about pain like a drill sergeant at some literary boot camp.

What makes this production (Raz Shaw) absolutely shine, towering above its source-script, is Hesmondhalgh’s performance. But, more than this, it’s an almost indefinable element within the performance, some kind of spark she exudes of *essentially brilliant, lovely human being*. Indeed, part of what makes the performance so remarkable is the way that warmth-exuding actor seems in constant tension with hard-ass character. Of course, part of the point of the play is the stripping away of the character’s layers of hard-assery to some sort of “essential humanity” underneath (an American invention (to my mind), of which I’m not necessarily a huge fan, but one given serviceable enough treatment here to be worth at least giving a respectful listen).

But this isn’t just a three-way exchange between writer, director and lead actor. The supporting cast all throw in apparently effortlessly detailed performances as myriad doctors, nurses, students and colleagues, while Hannah Clark’s stark design – a runway and revolve disk in hospital green is almost too spookily evocative and perfectly-observed, also managing to bridge the gulf between America’s private healthcare and what we’re still currently used to in this country.

There should also be much praise for lighting designer Jack Knowles, whose attention to detail and nuance through is outstanding, but who also contributes in no small measure to the gigantic final gesture of the piece, a kind of transcendent moment of light and humanity, which seems as good a way of imagining death as any.

As I hinted above, it’s a curious play, though. I’ve never been an especial fan of John Donne, but here he is, apparently stripped of all historical context or history. This is a forensic study of poetry where reputations are made and broken over contested punctuation. As such, it occurs to me, that rather than being a piece in which metaphysical poetry is used to understand cancer, it often feels more like something where poetry is almost understood as a cancer, and subjected to repeated attacks as such. In the abstract, this doesn’t seem like such a bad idea, although it’s unclear from this what John Donne did to be singled out for such treatment.

So, yes. I’ve filed this bloody review far too late to be of earthly use to the production, but this was about as brilliant a production of this play as it’s possible to imagine. And one that I thought far out-stripped the clever-cleverness of the original to find a far more intelligent humane core of its own.

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