Lennox Theatre, March 8


Margaret Edson has only written one play. She sent it to 60 companies before it was accepted, yet it won her the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Seldom has a work been more deserving, and seldom has a Sydney stage been graced by a performance as moving and as courageous as Cheryl Ward’s in the role of Vivian Bearing.

Or Dr Vivian Bearing, as she reminds the stream of medicos who torment her in their zeal to save her life. Bearing has stage-four metastatic ovarian cancer. She’s also a professor of 17th-century poetry, specialising in John Donne’s Holy Sonnets, which deal with life, death, dying, sin, salvation and God. Shakespeare, she assures us, is like a Hallmark card writer, by comparison.

Helen Tonkin and Cheryl Ward. Top: Ward and Yannick Lawry. Photos: Luke Holland.

When her oncologist, Dr Kelekian (an excellent Yannick Lawry), delivers his grim diagnosis, she thinks aloud as he speaks, picking at his odd choice of adjectives – “insidious” cancer and “pernicious” treatment – like scabs.

While being treated with extreme chemotherapy, she gloats over her illustrious career, or quotes Donne as the idle thoughts of a large, bored brain. “I’m learning to suffer,” she tells us, and in her suffering she unlocks her own metaphysical insights. Of time, she says, “It goes so slowly, and yet it is so scarce.”

Obviously she’s been a forbidding presence, and not just to her students. Life is lonely when Donne’s genius is your obsession, and no one’s clever enough to appreciate its profundity like you. So she receives no visitors until, when the cancer has spread, and hope lies outside her lexicon, her old professor (Helen Tonkin) comes and nestles on the hospital bed with her, and reads her a picture book about a young bunny.

Ward’s performance keeps welling up and battering down the doors to your heart as she makes desperately real both Bearing’s brilliance and the cracks in her stoicism. Meanwhile, we sit as voyeurs, and watch another human suffer – as we do with the nightly news.

Tonkin also directs this pared-back Clock and Spiel production: pared back not just in terms of Victor Kalka’s simple, evocative design, but in the performances, the cast completed by Kyra Belford-Thomas, Hailey McQueen, Joseph Tanti and Sayuri Narroway.

For Donne, death was merely a comma between life and afterlife. For Bearing it’s an exclamation mark that undoes her fastidious composure as it tears towards her.