Review: Polar Bears, Donmar Warehouse

“Where’s Kay, is she in Oslo? No, she’s in the cellar.”

Polar Bears is quite a coup for the Donmar Warehouse, being the first play written by celebrated novelist Mark Haddon. After the huge success of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time which featured a lead character with Asperger’s Syndrome and its follow-up A Spot of Bother, Haddon has now turned his hand to the theatre.

If you can, I would recommend going into this play with as little knowledge of it as possible, as it really does enhance the whole effect of it to no end. The review that follows does not contain any plot spoilers per se but it does discuss the nature and structure of the play which in itself is a bit spoilery, so if you’ve not seen it yet and you intend to, look away now! (But do come back afterwards xx)

The play centres around Kay, a young woman suffering from a bipolar disorder and the impact that her condition has on those around her. In particular, there’s John who is determined to maintain his love for Kay in the face of the struggle to live with and manage the volatility of their life, but we also see how Kay’s mother and brother have dealt with and continue to live with it.

Polar Bears employs a fractured narrative device so that scenes are played in a non-chronological order, stopping and starting abruptly, keeping us constantly on our toes. On top of that, there’s also some doubt as to the veracity of peoples’ accounts leaving us unsure if what we’re witnessing is real, or in Kay’s head, or indeed in any other character’s head.

Utilising a clever two-tier set, with a glass fronted corridor at the rear and wooden floorboards, the lighting design is extremely effective in the erratic scene changes and maintaining the dreamlike state of much of what we see. This all combines to great disorientating effect as would seem appropriate in a drama about mental illness, but not too much as to leave one completely disconnected from the material. Haddon skillfully reveals nuggets of information at key moments that keep adding pieces to the jigsaw, but we don’t know what shape the jigsaw is or indeed what the picture is of, the full truth of the situation remains just out of reach.

Haddon’s writing is bleakly funny at times, best shown in Paul Hilton’s brother testing out John’s suitability as a boyfriend for his sister, but more often than not the laughter is a nervous reaction to the searing honesty that permeates this play. The struggles in dealing with a loved one coping with such a condition are laid bare here along with the unspeakable thoughts that come at the darkest times. And I really liked the unasked question which was ‘who of us is really sane?’. The suggestion here is that everyone has their own personal demons whether diagnosed or not, the brother has issues from his childhood clearly haunting him and the opening scene suggests that it is John who is the one who is mentally afflicted, babbling wildly as he does.

Jodhi May’s portrayal of the tormented Kay is sensitively done, showing the mercurial highs and the deepest lows with a deftness of touch and she has a wonderfully expressive speaking voice, highlighted beautifully in the haunting telling of a story about a beautiful girl with a monster inside her. Richard Coyle is powerfully moving as the well-intentioned John whose limits are seriously tested by the woman he loves and Celia Imrie is as strong as ever as an overly protective mother.

Polar Bears is by no means an easy play, but then little about bipolar disorder is. Here we have a mystery wrapped up inside a puzzle and no clear answer provided to either, it is left to us to probe at the murky ambiguous layers to interpret our own version of events. It is all skilfully done, genuinely thought-provoking, brilliantly directed by Jamie Lloyd, and something that will linger long in the mind.

Running time: 90 minutes (without interval)
Programme cost: £3

3 thoughts on “Review: Polar Bears, Donmar Warehouse

  1. Hi Ian
    Thanks for your prompt review of Polar Bears, which I too thought was incredibly honest and raw and both beautifully produced and acted. There is one thing I'd add to your insightful review – I felt that in at least a couple of scenes it was made clear that both Kay's mother and brother had abused her badly in some way after her father's suicide and so I felt that somehow it was little wonder that she became depressive after being punished for her father's suicide (as it must have felt to her). I thought that the play had the resonance of a Bergman, with the layers being peeled away one by one to reveal the dark underbelly of the family's trauma. It is a shame that they did not have copies of the script yet as I would need to re-read it to interpret it more clearly, but the fact that I am still thinking about it 4 days later is a sure sign of quality…

  2. Crikey, I could have gone on for pages about what I thought might have happened or not, I tried to be as spoiler-free in the review though.
    I'm still not 100% sure that I even know what I think happened to Kay! I do think the opening scene was in John's imagination though…

  3. Thanks for your review. I thought there many different ways in which events could be interpreted and I liked that ambiguity, though I can see why some people would find it a turn-off. Still, it was nice to be challenged in the theatre for once.

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