REVIEW – WIT (The Royal Exchange, Manchester)

Julie Hesmondhalgh in WIT at the Royal Exchange, Manchester ©Jonathan Keenan

Upstaged Rating: 

Wit is Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play, a humorous, emotional and ultimately devastating story set in the final few hours of Dr Vivian Bearing’s life.

Dr Vivian Bearing is an American Professor of 17th-century poetry specialising in the metaphysical works of John Donne. A brilliant university lecturer and scholar, she now finds herself diagnosed with advanced metastatic ovarian cancer. While in university she was the tough teacher; now as an inpatient in a university teaching hospital she is the one being examined and studied.

Julie Hesmondhalgh is magnificent in the title role of Dr Vivian Bearing, playing out the final hours of Vivian’s life and also flashbacks to her past. Despite tackling the a subject as harrowing as cancer, Wit is delivered with a brittle humour resisting any kind of sentimentality – with Vivian realising, towards the end, that she prefers kindness to intellectualism. Her slim frame is covered by 2 hospital gowns and she wears a pink baseball cap on her hairless head – she is articulate and chooses the words she uses with care. Brutally announcing ‘I will never forget the time that I found out I had cancer’ the stage turns and we are transported back to when she first received the prognosis from Dr Kelekian (Tom Hodgkins).

Hannah Clark’s set design of a revolving stage and blue-green walkway and swing doors is perfectly suggestive of a sterile hospital environment. Chairs, hospital beds and IV poles are wheeled and passed urgently about the stage as clinical observation is pitted against the raw human emotion of Hesmondhalgh’s shattering performance.

Raz Shaw‘s direction is paced and perceptive and the supportive cast are also strong – Esh Alladi is superb as purposeful clinical fellow Dr Jason Possner MD, lacking empathy and communication skills – he brands the bedside manner course at med school ‘a colossal waste of time’. In contrast, Jenny Platt as Nurse Susie Monahan offers an alternative presence – finding time to moisturise Vivian’s hands when talking becomes difficult. Julie Legrand is impressive as the university academic who first taught Vivian about Donne and the power of punctuation.

Manchester’s Royal Exchange has certainly started the new year with a cracking show and  Julie Hesmondhalgh gives a striking performance at the centre of it. Cancer is a hard subject matter to tackle on stage, especially in a performance as honest as this – Wit may make some cry but it will definitely make everyone laugh, think and discuss.

-Kristy Stott

Wit is at the Royal Exchange until Saturday 13th February 2016 and you can get your tickets here