Monday, 3 April, 2000

"WIT" concerns Dr Vivian Bearing, an academic who finds her own way of dealing with cancer. When she discovers she has cancer that is in its advance state she decides to work with researches at the Hospital to try some experimental treatment. This will offer valuable and much needed research, but sadly no guarantee of a cure. The procedure, involving extensive Chemotherapy over 8 months, is very aggressive. Dr Vivian Bearing is a strong woman and a fighter, so she voluntarily excepts. After all, she is a professor herself, and proclaims that extending knowledge is always ennobling.

Dr Vivian Bearing is a Professor of Literature who specialises in the metaphysical poets, especially the poetical works of John Donne, who is well known for his religious verses, notably his 'Holy Sonnets'. She uses his sonnets to explain her life and her inevitable death. It helps to give her strength in trying to make sense of her rapid decline.

This play, lasting 90 minutes without an interval, is a very sad play indeed. You cannot fail to be moved by the plight of a strong woman fighting to keep her dignity and sanity while her body, and eventually her mind, deteriorates with this terrible disease. The cancer victim narrates the play, which is an apt way of getting over the feelings, insecurities and thoughts of the patient. The writer (Margaret Edson), used to work in a cancer inpatient unit of a research hospital, so she has been able to use this experience to write a play that is totally convincing. We are taken through all the indignities, insecurities and mental pain patients have to endure while fighting this disease.

This is a powerful performance from Kathleen Chalfant who recreates the role of 'Vivian Bearing, which she played to great acclaim in New York and Los Angeles. She is totally convincing as she puts all her energy and emotion into this demanding part. At first there appears nothing particularly warm or endearing about Professor Bearing, apart from maybe admiration for her strength of purpose. However, as she finally realises that death is inevitable and her physical strength wanes, Kathleen Chalfont convincingly portrays this woman's drift into despair without demeaning the character. A very difficult and powerful performance that left her looking totally drained, physically and mentally, at the end of the evening.

The show has received good notices from the popular press... ALASTAIR MACAULAY of the FINANCIAL TIMES says , "A beautifully accomplished piece of work - affecting, funny, and clever." CHARLES SPENCER of THE DAILY TELEGRAPH says, "As beautiful and transcendent as anything on the London stage." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE of THE TIMES says, "It is moving, funny and wise." He goes on to say , "I don't often blink back tears at plays these days. Last night I did." MICHAEL BILLINGTON of THE GUARDIAN says, "Wit is a provocative and eloquent play, boasting a superlative performance from Kathleen Chalfant." NICHOLAS DE JONGH of THE EVENING STANDARD was more lukewarm saying, "In Leigh Silverman's rather heavy-handed production Kathleen Chalfant is too intent upon making Vivian the gruff, withdrawn acme of academic vanity. She fails to reflect the character's growing vulnerability." PETER HEPPLE of THE STAGE says, "This must be the bravest production to be seen in the West End for many a year." He goes on to say, "Moving dignity to the very end."

It is hard to know if the writer is trying to portray some kind of message with this play, or is simply observing what it is like to fight this dreadful disease. Whatever the message, the result is that I found the play absorbing and morose. This is a poignant play that I recommend everyone goes and sees.

(Darren Dalglish)

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