Margaret Edson
Royal Exchange Theatre
Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

Julie Hesmondhalgh as Dr Vivian Bearing (rehearsal photo) Credit: Jonathan Keenan

Dr Vivian Bearing PhD, a professor in seventeenth century poetry specialising in the works of John Donne, stands before an audience delivering a lecture based on a close textual analysis that borders on dry stand-up comedy. The key differences with this lecture are that she wears a hospital gown and is attached to a drip and that the text she is analysing is the story of her life.

She tells her life story as though it had been written by someone else in a style not of her choosing, often apologising for the literary style. She tells us early on, "it isn't my intention to give away the plot, but... I think I die at the end," finishing her introduction with the theatrical flourish, "I've got less than two hours, then curtain."

This multi-layered play from 1997 brings together the Metaphysical Poets with metatheatrics and the very real story of an intelligent woman, able to describe her every experience through her carefully honed skills in literary analysis and the words of her beloved John Donne, dying of cancer. However this is all delivered with a great deal of warm humour and, well, wit.

There is far too much in this text to unpack in a humble review—this is such stuff as dissertations are made on—but at the heart of it is a woman who has dedicated herself to her career, strict with herself and her students, falling apart in front of us but describing eloquently what she is going through.

The part of Bearing is a real mountain for any actress to climb, physically, emotionally, vocally and just the sheer endurance of the part, but Julie Hesmondhalgh, sounding significantly different to how we usually hear her with her American accent, carries it off spectacularly well.

The hospital is testing some new treatments on her as part of a clinical trial, but the medical establishment doesn't always come off particularly well in the play. Her specialist Jason Posner, in a wonderful portrayal by Esh Alladi, is extremely embarrassed to be giving an internal examination to someone who taught him at university, vents his frustration at having to learn to interact with real human patients when he just wants to perform research in a lab and has a great speech in which he enthusiastically describes his admiration for cancer.

Jenny Platt is the lovely nurse Susie Monahan and Julie Legrand is Bearing's old college teacher, E M Ashford, who set her on her life's course. The rest of the cast in Raz Shaw's production all play multiple roles: Niki Angus Campbell, Okorie Chukwu, Tom Hodgkins and Harura Kuroda.

It would be easy to be put off this play by the subject matter, not helped by the poster image of Hesmondhalgh in a hospital gown with her drip, but, unlike many plays that show someone dying of whichever disease the playwright wishes to highlight, the audience is asked to think more than feel and laugh more than cry.

This is a very strong start to the Royal Exchange's year with a remarkable performance at the centre of it.

Reviewer: David Chadderton

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