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Print Version

by Margaret Edson
Directed by Gaye Poole
Original score - Gareth Farr
A Carving in Ice Production

at Telecom Playhouse Theatre, WEL Energy Trust Academy of Performing Arts, Hamilton
From 15 Sep 2010 to 18 Sep 2010

Reviewed by Gail Pittaway, 17 Sep 2010
originally published in Waikato Times

Margaret Edson's Pulitzer Prize winning play is “a little world made cunningly,” to quote John Donne, the area of expertise for the main character. Of course all plays should be. Here the world is that so beloved by the American Soap opera, the hospital. 

Vivian Bearing is an English professor who, when diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer, agrees to a ferocious regime of chemotherapy for eight months. A renowned Donne scholar and teacher, with a reputation for toughness, she struggles to retain her dignity and pride against the aggressive march of the disease and the unsentimental objectivity of the medical world. 

In an opening address to the audience, as if to a class of English students, Bearing reflects on the fatuous question she is repeatedly asked, “How are you feeling?” She advises us that though her prognosis is for one year, in the world of the play her term is two hours, at the end of which she will die. 

In a bleakly funny scene with Dr Kelekian the specialist, Bearing is told unceremoniously that she has cancer. As he is also a faculty man in a teaching hospital, they bemoan the poor standards of students these days. “They don't listen” she cries; “They don't see,” says he.

The parallel worlds of academy and hospital, both ivory towers, propel the tension. Bearing has denied her humanity all her life – here it becomes all she has left. The medical people forget to be humane in their quest to improve the human condition- in the end kindness is the last deed. 

Wit follows the highlights of her life – her inspirational Professor, E.M. Ashford; the books, especially children's books and poems, which led her to study the powerful poetry of John Donne, whose wit is the mainstay of her academic world. Wit, however, will not save her.

Donne's Holy Sonnets are quoted in the play – particularly themes of death, damnation and resurrection – and in some instances the play is titled W;t, a reference to an early debate with her professor over the punctuation in different editions of Donne. Is the pause before the phrase “death thou shalt die” a comma or a semi colon? Is it written “Death” or “death”?

But it is the Donne of the great “No man is an island” sermon, not the quirky knotty Donne, whose message resolves the problem of whether death is a lower or upper case experience: “Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.” Death comes to us all. We are all the same. 

At the end of the play, death “dies” because Vivian has signed a non resuscitation clause and, rather than struggle to regain life, she eases gently from it. In stage terms, she slips from the set. 

Gaye Poole has worked the play most effectively, retaining a stark simple hospital set, with shadow-puppet effects on curtains and screens. It's now a feature of Carving in Ice productions to tackle difficult subjects or scripts, and in a thoroughness typical of Poole's direction, the cast worked with medical specialists and cancer survivors to create a convincing and authentic sense of the world of a hospital. Four young actors act as core company in this show, as orderlies, students and emergency team.

Fiona Sneyd is stunning as Vivian Bearing, revealing a range from authority and intellectual pride at first, to helpless passivity as her body is burned up by the treatment.

Clive Lamdin is perfectly cast as her mentor Professor Ashford: avuncular, academic, but passionate about words and meaning. Ultimately he becomes her eulogist, reading The Runaway Rabbit to her comatose body, cunningly linking the little world of Vivian the child with the woman reconciled to simplicity.

Michael Potts ably portrays Jason Posner, an arrogant young Doctor who also must learn to admit when he has been wrong, while Richard Homan is very convincing as the specialist – sharp, slick and ambitious – while serving a double act as young Vivian's father.

The character on whom the plot turns is that of Susie the nurse, perfectly realised by Keagan Fransch. Her simplicity and courtesy restore dignity to the dying Vivian even though they have little in common but their humanity.

With fine sensitive snatches of classical music arranged by Gareth Farr, this is a touching and uplifting production. 
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