I’m a freelance journalist and published poet, based in Manchester.
Laughter and cancer are not obvious bedfellows but they come together throughout the new production at the Royal Exchange.
In Wit, by Margaret Edson, Julie Hesmondhalgh plays Vivian Bearing, a distinguished professor with expertise in metaphysical poetry, particularly the sonnets of John Donne. The play, directed in this production by Raz Shaw, is set in the hospital where she is being treated for ovarian cancer. We, the audience, are Vivian's witnesses, confidantes and at times her students, listening to past highlights from her lectures.
Julie Hesmondhalgh (Vivian Bearing). Photo by Jonathan Keenan.
One of the conceits in Wit is that Vivian talks about the stages of her illness and treatment as if it were a play, partly in attempt to distance herself from the reality of her situation. She recounts turning points in her life, including her discovery of the joy of language. She also tells us about the boredoms, pains and petty humiliations of cancer treatment.
Vivian is, at first, someone it is not altogether easy to warm to but she draws us in with her honesty and her sardonic wit. Her determination to retain her status and professional persona, as she interacts with doctors and medical staff is both poignant and often amusing. "Yes I am a doctor," she says in response to a routine question, before realising she is being asked the name of her medical doctor, rather than a reference to her academic achievements.
Jenny Platt (Susie Monahan) and Julie Hesmondhalgh (Vivian Bearing). Photo by Jonathan Keenan.
As Vivian's treatment intensifies and her immune system starts to break down, she begins to appreciate, more acutely, the value of human kindness. In one of the the drama's flashback scenes, she reassess some of her behaviour towards her students.
John Donne's musings on death and mortality also start to resonate on an immediate and deeply personal level, rather than just as abstract works of art. Julie Hesmondhalgh brilliantly conveys Vivian's journey from acerbic professor to vulnerable human being, whilst still maintaining her dry wit.
Esh Alladi is also impressive as Doctor Jason Posner. His paean to the ingenuity of the cancer cell is, in terms of language, one of the most poetic passages of the night. His reference to 'immortality in culture' has a dark irony, given the enduring works of genius which Vivian has devoted her life's work to.
The actor also displays some fine comic acting where he can barely conceal his nerves and embarrassment, whilst conducting an intimate examination of Vivian.
Julie Hesmondhalgh (Vivian Bearing), Esh Alladi (Jason Posner). Photo by Jonathan Keenan.
Julie Hesmondhalgh and the whole cast are deservedly awarded with a standing ovation as they take their bows. Wit brilliantly dramatises the way that we need art, science and simple human kindness to help us come to terms with illness and mortality. It's a play that deserves to be staged much more often.