Wit is nobody’s idea of a ‘fun night out at the theatre.’
Indeed, Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning tale of middle aged academic, Dr Vivian Bearing (Julie Hesmondhalgh,) who discovers that she has cancer – more specifically, advanced metastatic ovarian cancer – is every bit as bleak as you might expect. I’m certainly offering no spoilers when I tell you that one of Bearing’s first observations, made directly to the audience is that she isn’t going to make it out of the story alive.
Bearing’s speciality is the work of metaphysical poet John Donne, whom she quotes and refers to throughout. She attempts to intellectualise her advancing illness, treating it as though it is something to be studied, observed and reported back on, only to ultimately discover that these things are beyond the scope of such an approach. Death is ultimately the biggest grey area and as she drifts inexorably closer to it, a sense of futility overcomes everything else.
Because of the rarity of her condition, Bearing becomes a sort of prize guinea pig for her doctors, one of whom, Dr Posner (Esh Alladi) is a former student of hers. This elicits one of the play’ss most uncomfortably funny scenes as Posner is obliged to carry out a vaginal examination of the woman who gave him a poor grade for one of his essays. Her conversations with a nurse, Susie Monahan (Jenny Platt) are the only sections where she comes close to revealing anything of herself; and for me that was a problem. In order to fully care about Vivian, I needed to know a little more about her.
In the central role, Hesmondhalgh is extraordinarily good, managing to convey her wisecracking, American character with great aplomb. She is in every scene, so much so that the other actors struggle to make a connection with the audience. I was somewhat dismayed by the fact that I didn’t make enough of an emotional connection with the material, while others around me seemed to be visibly affected by what they were watching. At the play’s (admittedly thrilling) conclusion, the audience stood en masse to give a heartfelt standing ovation – but I thought that overall, the cool, detached style of the writing detracted from the potential power of the work. It was evident that the majority of the audience would have disagreed with me on that one.
As we get up to leave, a couple of women to our right, are crying their eyes out. Perhaps they are reflecting on something that has happened in their own lives that stirs such emotions – or maybe we just weren’t on the right wavelength tonight. At any rate, dry-eyed, we head for home.