W;t

Tue 7th – Sat 11th February 2012

reviews

Joe Nicholson

at 00:53 on 8th Feb 2012

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The Trinity Players have done well with their production of Margaret Edson’s "W;t" this week at the BT, bringing the Pulitzer Prize winning script into a moving and thoughtful performance.

By far the best part of the production was Emily Troup’s captivating performance as Vivian Bearing, the 50-year-old professor of seventeenth century poetry who is evaluating her treatment for advanced and terminal ovarian cancer. Such weighty subject matter makes for a dull performance in the wrong hands, but Troup’s playing of Vivian alongside excellent direction brought out the many subtleties submerged in Edson’s intelligent script. Throughout the play we see a shifting between Vivian’s commentary whilst staying in hospital in the last stages of her treatment, and a retrospective metatheatricality as she addresses the audience conspiratorially. The production divided these two elements well through controlled lighting changes, whilst Troup did well to manage a staggered, emphatic speech throughout her lines at the last stages of her illness, in contrast to a fluency as she acted out scenes that her character remembered from the past. Vivian’s character is wry and sarcastic, one level of wit played out from start to finish, and this dark humour was pitched well, encouraging many audience members to laugh with her.

Again, Troup’s performance of a character who undergoes progressive decline and degradation is powerful onstage, and beneath the sharp wittiness of Vivian’s speech a moving narrative of the indignity of the human condition is presented. Claudia King’s Susie, a nurse who attends the professor, proves an effective foil to the sharpness of the protagonist’s portrayal onstage, developing a stage metaphor throughout the one act play which underlines the fragility and vulnerability inherent to Vivian’s condition. This analysis is left for the audience to work out for themselves, whilst the power structures and relationships between the doctors are exposed by the professor, with some skilful acting by Andy Butler as Dr. Jason Posner especially. Vivian reveals the roles that humans play in their lives, the audience is brought closer to thoughts about how life, and by extension death, is dealt with by the individual. The effective choices by directors Platt and Ouwehand to develop a contrast between the simple and poignant human weakness in Vivian’s trajectory onstage and the complexity of her analysis and intellect, aligning with the brilliant sub-plot of John Donne and how the poet himself dealt with issues of complexity in his work.

As the play moves to a close (a fact self-consciously narrated by Troup) tension builds, alongside a pronounced awareness of the pathos of Vivian’s final state. Despite a closing scene which, regrettably, was littered with far too many tired Casualty/Holby City motifs, "W;t" is an impressive production, the shoddier acting from some of the smaller roles more than compensated for by the commendable performance by Troup. Edson’s moving and intellectually rigorous script is performed well, showcasing individual acting talent in an memorable hour or so, for entirely the right reasons.

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Madeleine Stottor

at 01:07 on 8th Feb 2012

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"W;t" is a complex one-act play, whose main action follows the final hours of Dr Vivian Bearing, a fifty-year old university professor dying from ovarian cancer. Dealing with themes of kindness, intellectualism, isolation, and death, it does not sound like an uplifting story. But the Trinity Players' production is honest and thought-provoking, witty and strangely hopeful.

From the very beginning, "W;t" makes its audience aware of its theatrical construction. Vivian (Emily Troup) outlines her situation, tells us she is going to die, as she stands isolated in the 'costume' of her hospital gown. The play progresses by alternating scenes detailing Vivian's current situation with incidents from her past: her diagnosis, learning to read with her father, her experiences as a student. Playwright Margaret Edson's background in Renaissance history and literature comes through strongly, as Vivian uses seventeenth-century poetry, particularly Donne's, to document her last hours.

W;t isn't the kind of play you 'enjoy': '"The Faerie Queene" this is not'. It's a problematic puzzle, which is at times difficult to relate to. Vivian's initial distancing from her illness and from the other characters is important within the play, but also pushes the audience further away from any empathetic position. Its techniques are deliberately de-familiarising and difficult (like Donne's poetry, as one student in the play remarks), as when Vivian talks to the audience over her doctor's diagnosis. Emily Troup's Vivian is convincing and nuanced, and she shows the audience many different elements of her character and her life, remaining on stage throughout and making no mistakes despite the demanding nature of her role. Claudia King as Susie, the nurse who manages to break through Vivian's intellectualised outer shell (apparently through a combination of ice lollies and endearments), is also excellent.

For me, Andy Butler's Jason was the most interesting character in the play, and the one which provoked the most emotional reaction. Jason is the research fellow assigned to Vivian's care, the one who subjects her to punishing experimental chemotherapy fully aware that she is unlikely to survive. He treats her as data only, and is at once intellectual and ignorant, cruel and clueless.

The Trinity Players put on an accomplished and confident performance, and credit must go to directors Olivia Ouwehand and Rory Platt for creating such a coherent and well-balanced cast. Clever spotlighting clearly delineates scenes, and foregrounds the hospital bed which remains on stage throughout, never letting the audience forget the play’s immediate context.

I’m not sure who should see "W;t." It is witty without being cheerful, and isn’t exactly light in terms of subject matter. The Trinity Players do a brilliant job with the play chosen; my problem lies more with the text than the production itself. Vivian is a difficult character to relate to, which might partly be the point but nevertheless makes it harder to engage with the play as a whole. "W;t" raises uncomfortable questions about the medical profession, loneliness, and humanity, drawing on poetry to make its points but remaining fundamentally somehow clinical, like the character of Jason.

The Trinity Players’ production features some outstanding acting, and is very well-directed. But even the title of the play, "W;t," throws you slightly, and its odd mix of dramatics and scholasticism does not help. An English Literature student might enjoy the references to Donne, and parodying of literature seminars; a medical student might be interested in the tensions between the conscience and the clinical. I do recommend seeing "W;t," but wonder what kind of audience it is really geared towards.

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