Polar Bears by Mark Haddon – A Review

Mark Haddon, author of the award winning novel ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time’ has made his first foray into the theatre with a compelling and engaging play, whose subject matter may not sit comfortably with some audiences.

‘Polar Bears’, which played  at the Donmar Warehouse Covent Garden earlier this year, is about bipolar spectrum disorder and while the play poses more questions than it answers,  the result is a superbly crafted work, revealing the intricacies and power play within relationships, yet it also conveys a sense of optimism in the consoling power of romantic, rather than familial love. 

The outcome of the play is revealed at the beginning and yet the director Jamie Lloyd sustains dramatic tension where the narrative moves forwards and backwards in time, never losing sight of the central theme. With a completely bare stage set, there is nothing to distract the audience from the narrative and action;  the actors make use of  quite limited space by using a ladder to access the upper level of the set.
John, a lecturer in philosophy, is married to Kay, a young woman who suffers from a psychological condition.  John’s struggle to cope with the depths and exultations of her moods provides the central tenet of the play as they construct a life together alongside Kay’s personal dream to be an artist, then to write stories for children. 

Kay’s mother and brother are strong supporting cast members and their dialogues with John provide sometimes dramatic insights into the history of Kay’s condition.  Haddon occasionally lightens the overall tone with deft touches of comic humour, yet the underlying tension pervades.  Both Margaret, Kay’s mother, and brother Sandy appear to have their own vested interests in maintaining the status quo.  Kay is not mentioned in the few dialogues between Margaret and Sandy and the audience is left to surmise whether any collusion exists between them. 

At times the tone of the narrative lapses into a preaching style, but this is quickly overcome.  A separate, yet integrated story is woven into the whole, about a beautiful woman who gives birth to twins; one a girl, the other a monster whose gender is not revealed.   She resolves to love them both equally and they grow up each believing in the normality of having a little girl, or a monster, to play with.

Jodhi May’s intensity in her portrayal of Kay moves her seamlessly from one state of mind to another, while Richard Coyle is convincing as her husband John, struggling to maintain stability for them both in a shifting landscape, holding, as he says, ‘the bottom of the kite string’.   Celia Imrie as Kay’s mother Margaret is a study in haughty control, while Paul Hilton as Kay’s brother Sandy is a ruthless individual, a businessman worshipping at the twin altars of wealth and success to the detriment of his relationships with his wife and children.   David Leon plays two very small roles, as Jesus and as Kay’s ex-boyfriend.

Mark Haddon has stated that a model for his ‘Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time’ was ‘Pride and Prejudice’: viewing seemingly constrained lives from another perspective.    ‘Polar Bears’ may in fact nod in homage to another literary figure, Jane Eyre, whose nemesis Bertha Mason has been viewed by some literary critics as Jane’s alter ego. 

Within the context of ‘Polar Bears’, Kay may be seen as the complete embodiment of the ego and the id, light and dark, angel and demon.


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