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Wednesday, July 22, 2009


(Pic: Clare Mortimer as Vivian Bearing)

Superb piece of theatre writing, beautifully handled by KickstArt with stellar performance by Clare Mortimer. (Review by Caroline Smart)

In 1999, American playwright Margaret Edson won the Pulitzer Prize for drama for her play W;t which deals with the last two hours in the life of Vivian Bearing, a feisty professor of English who specialises on the holy sonnets of the English Jacobean poet John Donne.

W;t (or Wit) was Edson’s first play, drawing on the experience she gained when she worked on the oncology/HIV unit of a major research hospital. The play was originally written in 1991 but received numerous rejections until it finally achieved the accolade it deserved with the Pulitzer Prize and a later Emmy Award for the film version. It is now a teaching tool in classes ranging from high school English to graduate bioethics.

Vivian Bearing has advanced metastatic ovarian cancer and starts off the play by saying matter-of-factly, "It is not my intention to give away the plot, but I think I die at the end.”

The very word “cancer” is invariably greeted with a reserved emotional response – from those who have lived with it, lost loved ones through it or are scared of being struck down by it. Firmly thrusting aside these responses, Margaret Edson has skilfully created a riveting, funny, warm-hearted, no-nonsense script.

It’s a superb piece of multi-layered theatre writing which Durban audiences – and later, those at the Witness Hilton Arts Festival – are privileged to appreciate with KickstArt’s current production. Invited to appear on the main frame of the National Arts Festival, it received major critical acclaim and played to sell-out houses and standing ovations.

Directed by Steven Stead, the play features a stellar performance by Clare Mortimer (Vivian Bearing) who is required to undertake a daunting journey of moods from the acerbic wit of the literary professor and the laconic responses of the patient being hustled from one clinical test to another, to the frightened person coming face to face with her destiny and the roaring tirade of a desperate woman in extreme pain.

Please, whatever you do, don’t be put off into thinking this is an angst-filled play and why see it because it will only depress you. On the contrary, you’ll laugh with Vivian’s forthright exchanges with the audience, chuckle at her impatience, sympathise with her frustration and – okay, yes – probably become tearful at some of the beautifully-handled emotional moments. There are some remarkable scenes and unless you’re made of steel, you will come out of the auditorium feeling that you have been part of a great experience – drama at its finest.

As excellent as Clare Mortimer’s performance is, it requires a strong support cast of equal standard to ensure the smooth running and credibility of the production. Jimmy Lithgow is suitably enigmatic as Dr Kelekian while Neil Coppen presents the right awkward energy as the intern Jason Posner. Alison Cassels brings much sensitivity to the role of Vivian’s former teacher while Olivia Borgen is endearing as the well-meaning but non-too-bright Susie Monahan. Doubling as lab technicians, students and hospital staff are Karen Logan, Clinton Small and Sean de Klerk.

Steven Stead and Greg King’s set is highly effective, using a structure of rails carrying white net curtains which Tina le Roux’s evocative lighting transforms into a range of scenes from the sterility of a hospital to the warmth of Vivian’s childhood home where she is fascinated by the unfamiliar words in a Beatrix Potter story.

Why the semi-colon in the title? Well, there is much focus on the importance of punctuation in Vivian’s life. A line in the script goes “death is a comma, a pause – not a semi-colon.”

Running time is 1 hour 35 minutes and there is no interval but don’t let this deter you, the action is riveting throughout.

W;t runs until July 26 at 20h00 in the Playhouse Loft, which is perfect for this kind of drama, as well as at the Witness Hilton Arts Festival for one performance only on September 20. The production is supported by the Grahamstown National Arts Festival and the National Arts Council. Book at Computicket nationwide. – Caroline Smart