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NOTE: The play has also been titled Wit. The semicolon refers to the recurring theme of the use of a semicolon versus a comma in one of John Donne's Holy Sonnets.

POSTED: 21 JUNE 2010

W;t, by Margaret Edson

New Theatre, Newtown, Sydney | Until 10 July

Margaret Edson’s W;t is the Pultizer-Prize-winning drama about Dr Vivian Bearing, a female academic and eminent Donne scholar, diagnosed with advanced Stage Four metastatic ovarian cancer. There is no Stage Five.

This is a clinical examination of the inevitable decline and agonizing death of a cancer patient. So, hardly an amusing evening in the theatre, but in the intelligent and proficient hands of the cast and crew of New Theatre, W;t provides dramatic catharsis.

The play’s conceit is to compare the scholarly inflexibility in John Donne’s metaphysical poetry with the apparently futile life of the intellectual Dr Bearing and her disdain for her students and, one assumes, everyone else she encounters.

The medical establishment has only minor human interest in Dr Bearing, except as providing an opportunity to experiment with a brutal new course of chemotherapy.

The setting (by James Croke) is a teaching hospital, skillfully recreated on stage, in a functional, credible but often noisy approach.  The accomplished lighting (by Siobhan Callanan and Deidre Math) illuminates, and examines with a starkness, the forensic subtext.

The audience is immediately confronted by Dr Bearing (Karen Bayly) and the focus never shifts as we observe her monogamous relationship with literature — a career devoted to analysing Donne’s poems down to their punctuation marks, but also one that has limited her capacity for empathy.

We watch as this middle-aged woman stoically endures pain and humiliation without flinching — physically or emotionally. She also suffers it alone.

Only a touching deathbed visit from her aged school professor (Margaret McManus), and a humorous, warm and affectionate fleshing out of the character of the hospital nurse (Shondelle Pratt), interrupt Vivian’s emotional solitude.

The play is a comment on the nature of modern research medicine and it is in this theatre that Bearing encounters Jason Posner MD (confidently played by Matt Charleston) who is also a former student of hers.

Dr Bearing’s addiction to abstraction and her indifference to others are mirrored in the actions of Jason Posner. Ironically he received an A– in Donne but he is now so myopically focused on the clarity of his scholarship that he has lost all of the sign marks to humanity that medicine should produce.

Karen Bayly’s performance is, like the subject matter, stoical, intellectual and layered. This is a difficult role as it is limited in emotional range but Jane Eakin’s sharp  direction ensures that the play’s integrity is never compromised. This allows the poignancy of the final reading of The Runaway Bunny to illuminate the major theme — language has the power to overcomplicate, but ultimately life is simply about kindness and compassion.

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