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.