Graham Caveney reviews a life-enhancing drama about death, Donne and dignity, and which critiques the medical-political marginalisation of cancer patients.
Dr Vivian Bearing, the lead character of this remarkable play, is dying. She tells us this within the first few minutes of appearing on stage, dressed in her hospital gown and trailing her bags of fluids on an unwieldy contraption next to her: “In two hours time – by the end of this play – I will be dead”. She makes this announcement without any self-pity or claim to heroic acceptance. It is simply the way things are, a spoiler-alert for those who were maybe expecting a more upbeat triumphalism.
In, as it were, her previous life, Vivian had been an academic – one of those fierce and thorough literary critics who populate American campuses and for whom literature is the strangest of things: a joyless passion. Her specialism had been John Donne – the metaphysical poet whose meditations on mortality, God and language had elevated the concept of ‘wit’ to something akin to ‘wisdom’ – a way of reconciling and celebrating the contradictions of human duality.
What then unfolds is a drama which explores fully the confrontation between Vivian’s analytic mind and her ailing body. Whereas her life has been built around reading and interpretation, scrupulous research and attention to the minutiae of a text, she now finds herself the subject of languages over which she is powerless, a life that is literally dependent on other people’s reading and research.
The Royal Exchange is a theatre in the round and, as such, is the perfect setting for exploring the enforced intimacies of illness. We move from diagnosis to treatment in a series of rapid scene changes, each one signalled by evocative lighting and minimal sets. Interspersed with the medicine we get flashbacks to Vivian’s life as a teacher, with scenes set in lecture halls and seminar rooms.
What lends the drama its emotional authenticity is that it presents its heroine in the least heroic of lights. Julie Hesmondhalgh’s electric performance as Vivian gives us a woman for whom scholarship had become a way of denying her own vulnerability, a love for the artifices of 17th century poetry that could protect her from the more messy entanglements of everyday life. For Vivian, Donne does not enhance the joys of living, he replaces them.
Except that he can’t replace this, the stage four ovarian cancer (there is no stage five). Cancer is not about the poetics of commas or the paradox of language. Cancer is about puking and the bearing of indignity, it is about loneliness and our reluctant acceptance of kindness. Vivian’s ultimate irony is that in the process of losing her life, she also discovers those qualities that constitute her humanity. It is a irony Donne would have relished.
For the doctors, however, cancer is also about research and the play is scathing in its depiction of those medical-political structures and hierarchies that reduce patients to data and render their experience all but invisible.
Various memoirs and movies have meant that the experience of cancer is now a genre, one with its own narrative structure and emotional expectations. The strength of Edson’s play is that it both acknowledges this fact but does so in a way that re-writes those expectations. She allows the genre to breathe, to find the rhythm of its own peculiarities and to offer us tableaux of what Donne described as “souls unbodied, bodies unclothed”.
Wit is on at the Manchester Royal Exchange until 13 February.
Graham Caveney is the author of biographies of William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg (both published by Bloomsbury). His memoir The Boy With The Perpetual Nervousness will be published by Picador in the spring of 2017.