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OTG's autumn 2008 production of Wit was directed by Georgina Ferry and performed at The North Wall Arts Centre in Summertown. Reviews of the show appeared in Daily Information, the Oxford Times, and What's On Stage.
picture from the performance Helen McGregor as Dr Vivian Bearing
A gallery of pictures from the production is available to view.

OXFORD TIMES - Giles Woodforde

“Hi! How are you feeling today?” It’s a question that’s repeatedly asked by doctors in Margaret Edson’s riveting play Wit. The story concerns Dr Vivian Bearing, a brilliant scholar and lecturer in 17th-century English literature. Her lectures combine rigorous scholarship with sparkling wit. A chair at a major university surely beckons.

Then she is diagnosed with acute ovarian cancer. The questions she is accustomed to answering in the lecture room change. “Doctor?” asks a harassed nurse. “Yes, I’m a doctor of philosophy,” answers Dr Bearing. “No,” snaps the nurse in tones of rising irritation, “I want the name of your doctor.” Thus playwright Edson begins to play academic and medical semantics off against each other. As the cancer relentlessly takes hold, Dr Bearing finds that she has already drawn knowledge of life and death from John Donne’s sonnets. But she has not learnt the real meaning of the word ‘pain’.

Meanwhile, the medical profession does not come off well. The two doctors are patronising, and plainly see Dr Bearing as future material for an article in a medical journal — thus furthering their own careers, no doubt. They discuss the case with their students across the patient’s bed as if she was already dead. The nurses are often rude. Against this shabby behaviour, Vivian Bearing’s fortitude, and continuing sense of humour, shine like a beacon. The central question posed by this beautifully written play never needs to be asked directly: why is it that cancer so often kills people who still have so much to contribute to life?

In this Oxford Theatre Guild production, director Georgina Ferry draws strong support from Tim Younger and Adam Potterton as the two doctors, and from Sam Knipe as a nurse who starts off rude, then becomes very caring. But it’s the performance of Helen McGregor as Vivian Bearing that counts: it’s sparklingly humorous one minute, deeply moving the next, and totally convincing at all times. I very much doubt that anything better will be seen on any Oxford stage this year.

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DAILY INFORMATION - Suchita Shah

“Now is not the time for verbal swordplay, for unlikely flights of imagination and wildly shifting perspectives, for metaphysical conceit, for wit. . . . Now is the time for simplicity. Now is the time for, dare I say it, kindness. I thought being extremely smart would take care of it. But I see that I have been found out.”

Aside from taxes, there really is only one other certainty in life. Death. And that is largely the subject of Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer-winning play, Wit, performed by the Oxford Theatre Guild at the North Wall Arts Centre in Summertown.

The protagonist is Dr Vivian B-e-a-r-i-n-g (as we hear her spell out on numerous occasions), PhD, a professor and scholar of John Donne, who has Stage Four metastatic ovarian cancer. The narrative of her life – and death - unfolds in the patient room of a large American teaching hospital.

Death and cancer – hardly the merriest cocktail to imbibe, you may think, as winter approaches and recession looms. Yet the themes in this play are somewhat incongruously life-affirming.

‘How are you feeling?’ is the opening line that becomes a mechanical utterance heard time and time again from the likes of Dr. Harvey Kelekian, an eminent cancer research scientist who enrols Bearing into a clinical trial of chemotherapy drugs, and the clinically astute, but socially inept, Dr Posner, her former student.

As the play takes us back to ‘various places in the memory of Vivian Bearing’ we begin to see the ironies and parallels between her former role as uncompromising intellectual and her new position at the mercy of similarly-minded professionals. As she struggles with cycles of aggressive chemotherapy and its side effects, along with the progression of her disease, her power of cool analysis that was once a strength now becomes a limitation. Bearing is, well, suffering. The health care professionals are struggling, too, to humanise their experimental ‘case’.

The production as a whole was of a very good standard. Helen McGregor as Vivian Bearing, bald, double gowned and attached to a drip, immediately established a rapport with the audience. There were one or two shaky American accents but, in keeping with the point of the play, I’ll try not to deconstruct too much. Some nice touches included scene changes carried out in surgical scrubs, and a slide projection of Donne’s Holy Sonnet number Nine, dissected, line by line, as though the subject of an anatomy class. The Grand Round was well done, and the chain sequence of Xray ‘mugshots’ reminds one of a similar dehumanizing process that occurs in prisons.

The message of the play is clear: in the face of death, disease and disability, humanity, compassion and kindness can touch the human spirit in a way that rational analysis cannot. Furthermore, there is hope that the languages of medicine and literature can converge to empower and inform, rather than obfuscate. Perhaps this has particular meaning here in Oxford, a city of scholars and intellectuals. It certainly made an impact on me, as a doctor, and was one of the most moving, thought-provoking and enjoyable one-and-a-half hours I have spent in a long time.

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What's On Stage - Sally Outen

“Fever and neutropenia,” ovarian cancer sufferer Vivian Bearing cries – a plaintive and repeated appeal for help from her nurse. The line is delivered in a childlike manner that begins to mirror the character’s early attempts to pronounce the word “soporific” (presented in flashback in a previous scene). An academic with a passion for etymology, Vivian has recently acquainted the audience with her belief that “my only defence is the acquisition of vocabulary”. She is in possession of a wry humour and self-assured cleverness – but is this merely a means of hiding from the personal realities of her own terminal condition?

“Wit”, which won Margaret Edson the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1999, was partly inspired by its writer’s work experience in a hospital unit for patients suffering from cancer and AIDS. Edson saw striking parallels between the fields of medical research and literary analysis; as such, Vivian’s objective dissection of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets, her academic specialization, bears certain similarities to the clinical methodologies to which she is exposed. As Vivian learns the experience of being an object of study (“Now I know how poems feel!”), she begins to discover the value of simplicity over intellectual evasion, the latter arguably exemplified by the wit and complicated conceits of Donne’s poetry. Her own mortality reveals her underlying humanity; the overall tone of the play is anything but morbid.

This Oxford Theatre Guild production follows the lead taken by the 2001 film adaptation (starring Emma Thompson), in depicting Vivian as English by birth. This would seem to be a judicious decision – while the various stateside accents employed by other cast members are generally more than passable, it would be superfluous to demand the same of in the case of the protagonist, a role that is already extremely challenging in itself without the added strain of sustaining a convincing American brogue.

As it stands, Helen McGregor’s portrayal of Vivian comes across as utterly compelling. She has clearly approached the role wholeheartedly and with great sensitivity, even going to the trouble of having her head shaved to better harmonize with one aspect of the experience of an advanced stage cancer sufferer. Her grasp of Vivian’s scholarly demeanour and ironic humour is spot on, while her depictions of painful episodes are truly effective in eliciting sympathy from the audience. It is certainly no exaggeration to cite her performance as key to the production’s success.

For the most part, the other performers occupy their roles appositely and believably. In particular, Adam Potterton shines as the focussed, ambitious Jason, ably emphasizing the character’s similarities to Vivian in outlook; while Sam Knipe provides a genuine and likeable Susie, with some particularly poignant interactions towards the end of the play.

The piece intentionally illustrates the tedium of life spent in hospital and the intrusiveness of constant monitoring by clinical staff. Even with this as a consideration, the dialogue could afford to be snappier in places, and some of the scene changes (while artfully achieved using nurses and lab technicians) feel overly distracting at times. These minor quibbles aside, however, this is an affecting and intelligent production, and very much deserving of a visit.

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