The metaphysical poets – John Donne, Andrew Marvell and George Herbert among them – were renowned for their use of wit, an ingenious yoking together of seemingly disparate images. A separated couple become the two points of a compass. A flea is a vehicle of union between two lovers. Wit is required of the reader also, the insight and tenacity to puzzle out the densely packed allusions and discover the truth hidden behind them.
In Wit, Margaret Edson’s 1999 Pulitzer-prize winning play, a teacher and student mull over the meaning of one of Donne’s Holy Sonnets. The teacher, Professor Ashford (Helen Morse), emphasises the importance of the placing of a comma, the way it shifts the meaning of the poem so that death becomes not an overwhelming obstacle but rather a breath, a pause. The student, Vivian Bearing (Jane Montgomery Griffiths), absorbs the lesson, vows to do better, and becomes, in time, an equally exacting professor.
Donne’s poem – commonly rendered as ‘Death be not proud’ – is the central metaphor of Edson’s play. Ashford’s argument that the poem demonstrates that death might be vanquished through intellectual rigour, through the gaining of knowledge, is one that Bearing takes to heart. When she is diagnosed with stage-four ovarian cancer, she struggles against death in the same way she might struggle to decipher a poem.
Edson’s play is multifaceted, sliding in and out of Bearing’s past – her scholarship, her teaching, her first romance with words – and her present, in particular her hospitalisation and treatment. Bearing uses her intellect to spar with death. It can be defeated, she reasons, as long as she gives herself entirely to the challenge.
It’s this tussle between the intellectual and the physical which is at the heart of Wit, and Montgomery Griffiths affords Bearing all the necessary intensity and passion. When she weeps for the beauty of a word, we believe her, and when she loses herself in the intricacies of a poem, you can almost feel the heat of her devotion.
Montgomery Griffiths falters a little in those sections where Bearing confides in the audience. She hasn’t yet found a consistent tone for these passages, opting for perky and jovial, when something on the darker side of wry might have better suited the character. But when she hits her marks, Montgomery Griffiths is compelling.
Helen Morse is exquisite in two pivotal scenes. She brings dignity and gravity to her realisation of Professor Ashford, and offers a cool contrast to Bearing’s fire.
Jing-Xuan Chan is gentle and suitably restrained as the nurse who sees Bearing through the last stages of her illness, but overall, the supporting cast is unable to match the heights set by Montgomery Griffiths and Morse. On opening night, some were uncertain of their lines, while others had a tendency to swallow their words, all adding to the general unevenness of the production.
Director Ben Pfeiffer is unable to bring cohesion to the various threads of Edson’s closely-woven script. Some scenes are nicely focussed – Bearing reading with her father – while others flounder, and transitions from past to present, exterior to interior, often jar. Most unsteady are those scenes involving the hospital staff, where the staging tends to be vague and static, and the import of the words not well-served.
The script in a number of the treatment scenes does tend to clunk a little (it seems far-fetched that Bearing’s oncologist took her class in eighteenth-century poetry), but that’s no excuse for the lack of definition Pfeiffer gives them. A play that emphasises the role of punctuation as a conduit to meaning deserves better accentuation of key scenes and seminal speeches.
Wit is a moving play. It celebrates intellectual passion and delights in the power of words, while not shying away from the physical trauma of cancer. This production might not be all it could be, but when it’s good it’s very good, and that’s largely down to the fierceness – and anguish – that Montgomery Griffiths brings to this performance.
The Artisan Collective in association with fortyfivedownstairs present
by Margaret Edson
Directed by Ben Pfeiffer
Venue: fortyfivedownstairs | 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne VIC
Dates: 31 August – 17 September 2016
Tickets: $38 – $32
Bookings: 03 9662 9966 | www.fortyfivedownstairs.com