Warning – this review contains significant spoilers for the play and performance which it assesses.
“Mental illness has never been easy to talk about”, say the programme notes for this week’s production of Polar Bears, but “Mark Haddon’s work has made a significant impact in dissolving the stigma”. It seems to me that the cast and crew of this raw and rather beautiful production have succeeded in bringing this belief to the Bubble; a thoughtful and considerate production can force us to overcome the taboo, and begin a dialogue.
It is thought-provoking material such as this which brings the intimate space of the Barron Theatre into its own, and this was elegantly realised by the show’s directing. In one striking scene, Kay (Polar Bears’ main character, played by Jen Grace) was seated on the floor by the feet of the audience, surrounded by her childlike drawings of a girl and her polar bear ‘monster’; she recounted the story which accompanied them – the proximity and the stunning projections (from artist Kate Marriott) made it uncomfortably clear that susceptibility to mental illness is just as common as drawing pictures in childhood.
It became clear that Kay was not the only little girl who had a ‘monster’ following her, too. The rest of the small cast each subtly showed their own characters’ neuroses (after an admittedly slow start): Margaret, Kay’s mother who struggles with abandonment after her husband’s suicide (Elizabeth Perry); Sandy, Kay’s controlling and emotion-shunning brother (Euan Kerry); Kay’s former love interest and possible hallucination, artist Jesus (Nishant Raj), whose soliloquy on the stages of human body decay was humorously and sensitively delivered; and John, Kay’s lover (Joe Viner), supporter, and eventual murderer.
Viner’s job was especially difficult, as Haddon’s disjointed timeline meant that his character’s development happened backwards. The play opens with John murdering Kay; only later do we see their first meeting and the attempts to combat her illness. Viner, although a little tentative in the opening scene, ultimately rose to this challenge and gave a complex and introspective John, whose love for Kay was very much tangible.
In the penultimate scene, Jesus and John together remind us of our mortality – Haddon’s message of compassion is brought home to us: “love is when they no longer know your name”. Mental illness is just that – an illness, and this production was thought-provoking and emotionally draining. With his timeline, and the idea of Nietzchean eternal recurrence, Haddon seems to ask us to intervene – to change our attitudes and to help the mentally ill, lest the brutalities of the play recur eternally. “Sed omnes una manet nox”, John reminds us; “a night awaits us all”.