How do you distract yourself? What do you do to convince yourself everything’s fine? Sometimes I tidy my bookshelf, or my room, or have a bath. We’ve all got rituals, small things we spend our lives on. When you’ve got a task to focus on, it’s much easier to narrow your focus to just that task – There’s a kind of oblivion in activity. Thinking, putting off and putting out of mind is almost what Margaret Edson’s Wit is all about, not that it’d ever admit it.
Julie Hesmondhalgh stars as Vivian Bearing, a professor of English, specialising in the poetry of John Donne. She has been diagnosed with stage four, metastatic ovarian cancer. ‘There is no stage five’. Vivian is an academic first and last – allowing us no other route into understanding her character. She is arrogant, standoffish and obsessed with John Donne, frequently quoting his poetry at length. I’m certain if I met someone like her in real life I’d make tracks as soon as I could. But her obsession draws us in.
Maybe it’s because it’s cancer (and the certainty of death from the start) that there’s no need for any other relatable factor; we’re grabbed from the start by that great unconfrontable, familiar menace. To the show’s credit, it doesn’t appear to be making any great effort to be relatable but remains incredibly compelling.
I grappled for a bit, during and after Wit, with the incredibly academic context of the play. Vivian is an academic, her doctors are academics and all they seem to talk about are either 17th century poetry or ovarian cancer. I know next to naff-all about John Donne, less still about ovarian cancer, but that’s not the point. Because, as alienated as we are by Vivian’s character, it’s her little obsessions that we relate to. Donne’s poetry is just a means to an end and, for Vivian, a reason to be. Rather than being a play about cancer, Wit is as tired of thinking about cancer as Vivian is; Hesmondhalgh drags us through Vivian’s treatment and death and all we learn about is life. Donne is simultaneously her reason to live and her validation for the life she’s lived.
I’ve never died, yet. But I see a lot of myself in Vivian. A lot of everyone. Why on earth do any of us try to achieve anything? At the end of it all, we’ve just been occupying time. Vivian leaves behind a load of (highly regarded) research while her death from cancer forms the research of the doctors who mill about her bedside. The route to self-actualisation never ends, except perhaps (certainly for Vivian) with death. We’re all serving this mythic idea of progress that just continues forever before and after we are. When we find it, we find our own joy in the little things we leave behind. And I guess that’s fine.
There’s a good deal of shade in Wit, but it’s equally light. Hesmondhalgh’s performance is massive and masterful, taking us on a dry, sneering and hilarious journey into the light at the end of the tunnel. I can’t imagine a better embodiment of Vivian. Cancer looms large, and fear creates tension, which is shattered again and again as Hesmondhalgh kicks our lungs empty and has us in fits. Because Wit is funny. Funny in a way you could call ‘charming’ if it weren’t for its simultaneous fierceness. Vivian rages not so much against the dying of the light as against every moment of light the good lord sends.
If there’s any real horror in Wit, it’s a fear of boredom, rather than oblivion. Removed from her circuitous academic work, Vivian is left with nothing to occupy her but the rehearsed and repeated eight months of chemotherapy. By the end, oblivion is a sort of sublimation for Hesmondhalgh’s Vivian – the ultimate putting-off, of thought, of concerns. Death is the final deferral we spend our lives practicing for.
Wit is as much a puzzle as Vivian claims Donne’s cryptic Holy Sonnets are. Why am I gripped by the story of this hyper-academic? How can a play about cancer be so funny? What is it to spend a life wisely or well? In the end, we are turned in on ourselves to find whatever answers there are. And maybe that’s all life ever was.
Wit is on at the Royal Exchange until 13th February. For tickets click here.