Wit, or W;t by Margaret Edson is not an easy comic play, either to put on or to watch. Showing the ‘life’s last scene’ of a renowned professor of English as she succumbs to cancer, Wit is wry, touching, and very, very clever. The taut, deeply complex writing won a Pulitzer prize, invites linguistic analysis even as I watch it and requires mastery to stage. Fortunately, the Trinity Player’s production is precisely that – masterful. A stunning attention to detail has been paid to every element of the show, with a strikingly realistic set and use of props offsetting the strange relationship between audience and central character that shifts in every scene and controls the play.
Mostly, however, the mastery can be sensed in the key performance of this play. Emily Troup plays Vivian Bearing with the emotional dexterity and pure ability I might expect from an actress three times her age. At first I found her initial slow, measured delivery off-putting, until I realised that was because it perfectly matched the tones of lecturers I’ve sat listening to, which is precisely the point. Yet Troup can move from this to a personal, confessional delivery that brought tears to my eyes seamlessly. Throughout the play the audience is manipulated into different roles, and this constantly depends on the subtleties of Troup’s performance. Vivian is wry, acerbic and terrifyingly intelligent, but Troup maintains the sympathy needed for the role with a shaking hand, or a twisted wrist, or simply making eye contact at the right moment. My only criticism would be that at one moment she fails vocally in reaching the higher pitched voice of a five year old Vivian, but it’s an incredibly minor point in one of the best individual performances I’ve seen at Oxford.
Troup is supported by a talented bunch, though rightfully their performances fall into the background and are rather understated. Douglas Grant has the interesting double turn as Vivian’s doctor and her father, and the similarities between his two performances, while not overt, raises some compelling questions. Jason, the clinical researcher with no bedside manner, occasionally seems a little too normal for a person so profoundly enthusiastic about cancer, but Andy Butler pulls it off as pomposity for the most part. My biggest problem is with Claudia King’s nurse character, Susie. Her perpetually sympathetic expression threatens to slip into pained several times, and for a medical professional she seemed a little too involved in one particular patient – though, as a counterpoint to the clinicians her role is clearly meant to be more that of a friend. Perhaps it’s the cynic in me, or maybe I wanted a little more variation in King’s approach.
All quibbles aside, this play is utterly involving. It’s not the kind of play you expect students to pull off, it’s a play so much about death and aging that the idea of younger actors should be disengaging, but it isn’t. If anything, watching Troup as a young woman makes the fear of an early death that suffuses some of her dialogue hit home all the harder. The direction of Olivia Ouwehand and Rory Platt has obviously been thorough, exploring every moment with the intelligence and attention to detail the writing demands. Watching this will feel like the best lecture you’ve ever attended, clever, funny, well-paced, emotionally harrowing and overwhelmingly enjoyable – so prove yourself the student you’re supposed to be and go see it.
***** Five Stars
Wit is on at the Burton Taylor Studio from the 7th – 11th at 7:30 pm.