Nov 12 2009 | By More


St Bride’s Centre: Wed 11 – Sat 14 Nov 2009
Review by Thom Dibdin

Tough and uncompromising but not quite achieving its full potential, the Grad’s production of Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer prize-winner finds great emotional depth but is ultimately undone by purely technical details.

Never a company to make things easy on themselves, the Grads have taken on a horrifyingly difficult production. It’s not so much the subject material – the final two hours in the life of Vivian Bearing Ph.D. who has stage IV Ovarian cancer. Although that itself is a pretty big ask to make entertaining.

The difficulty the size of the role given to the person playing Bearing. Not only is she on stage throughout the production, with a mind-boggling amount of material to remember, but she has to jump between different aspects of the character in tricky flashback scenes.

Get it all right and the result will be a stunning emotional roller-coaster that certainly leaves its audience breathless – and more than likely fighting back the tears. Even more so in this production in the round where company – and audience – have nowhere to hide.

Taking on that tough call is Hilary Davies. And she has certainly succeeded in the first part of her task. The words are all there and, under David Grimes’ deliberately paced-out direction, the ark of the final two hours of Bearing’s suddenly curtailed life brutally revealed.

So too is the frustration of a woman who has been used to being at the very top of her chosen field of study: a punctilious professor of works of English metaphysical poet, John Donne, feared and revered by her undergraduates for uncompromising attitude to the interpretation of Donne’s works.

That frustration – and her uncompromising attitude – is born out in Bearing’s decision to undertake an experimentally high level of chemotherapy, in order that her body might be used as research for cancer specialist Dr Kelekian (John Kelly) and his intern, Jason Posner (Steven McFarlane).

As the audience see Bearing die over the course of the play, they come to realise that it is not the cancer which has killed her, but the treatment.

All this medical side is splendidly done – or at least Posner’s indifference to her personal feelings in his blinkered following of the experimental path, coupled the deep, personal involvement of Bearing’s nurse, Susie. Both McFarlane and Lorraine McCann as Susie, put in strong and convincing performances.

Not at all convincing, however, is Kelly’s portrayal of Kelekian. He should be, at least in intellectual terms, Bearing’s equal. As Kelly stumbles over his words and bumbles through his lines you never believe he could have been. Moreover, his performance pulls you back into the theatre, where the other cast members have largely succeeded in transporting you to another place.

To be fair, the technical problems of staging the play in the round in St Bride’s also impinge. The hospital bed trundles loudly across the echoing dance floor, while the drip which Bearing pulls behind as she walks about the space, constantly becomes caught in the flooring.

Less successful than the medical aspect is the metaphysical one. More specifically, the scenes where Davies has to portray Bearing’s earlier self, the Donne specialist lecturing on his Holly Sonnet number 5, If Poisonous Minerals, or trying to instil an understanding of his famous wit in her undergraduates.

Davies never convinces as a Donne specialist. There’s no spark of infectious enthusiasm for the poetry, no engagement with the audience so that they come to understand for themselves Edson’s staggering success in using the poems as a conceit – a sustained parallel – for Bearing’s situation.

That said, this is still a moving and thought-provoking production which is well worth seeking out.

Run continues to Saturday 14 November 2009.
Grads website


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  1. Suzanne Senior says:

    I saw this production on the Saturday night and thought it was excellent. A lot of the audience, myself included, were moved to tears, and I thought Hilary Davies was outstanding as Professor Bearing.