My friend and I rocked up to EUTCO’s recent performance of Mark Haddon’s Polar Bears at quite short notice. We guessed from the title that it must be some sort of Christmas play, so off to campus we went singing Christmas songs (too early, I know). A quick look at the programme told us that the play was nothing of the sort. I should say straight away that Polar Bears is neither a Christmas themed or feel-good play.
The play is based around a young woman suffering from bipolar disorder, and raises some probing questions about mental illness, family, control, and death. Perhaps the play’s label as ‘black comedy’, then, is somewhat generous. Granted, there are some darkly humorous moments, but these are mainly concentrated at the beginning of the play, and otherwise there is little comic relief.
Instead of presenting the audience with a comfortable solution to issues surrounding mental illness, Haddon simply blows these issues wide open and offers us a number of different perspectives on them. The play is a starting point for the audience’s own reflection. Although any expectations of a tidy resolution are frustrated, the play forces the audience to engage with the ideas presented, encouraging us to try and resolve them ourselves, rather than just forgetting about the play once we’ve seen it.
The non-linear narrative was particularly effective in that the end of the play comes first, and then, piece by piece, how this dramatic event came about. This was important because it emphasised how mental health issues manifest and develop. Rather than focusing simply on the internal struggle of Kay, the main character, Haddon expands the focus onto all the characters that must care for her, showing the further reaching implications of mental illness, and more generally the influences that all humans have on each other.
EUTCO’s performance of the play was brilliant, in my opinion. I thought that the acting was phenomenal, particularly from such a young cast. Will Beynon was especially outstanding, as he portrayed the character development of John seamlessly. The music also enhanced the overall atmosphere of the play, as it reflected the mental states of the characters at different points, and often juxtaposed happier sounding tracks with climactic or emotionally intense scenes.
Haddon’s Polar Bears is intensely dark, and does not carry the same bittersweet optimistic tone as some of his other work, such as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Time, but it is nevertheless intellectually stimulating. Polar Bears is well worth seeing if you’re in a particularly reflective frame of mind – don’t let its intensity put you off.
By Kate Ferguson