By Kate Larsen
Mark Haddon, author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (written from the perspective of a young boy with autism), approaches disability from another angle with his stage-writing debut, Polar Bears, playing at the Donmar Warehouse until 22 May 2010.
This is the story of Kay (Jodhi May), a children’s author and mental health service user. Except that it’s not. It’s really the story of her husband, John (Richard Coyle) and her effect, her wake, the ripples she makes in other people’s lives: “one man’s struggle to love, support and live with someone suffering from a psychological condition.”
The play jumps back and forth over Kay and John’s life together. From John being warned off by her family when they were first falling in love, when all he wanted to be was “the person holding the bottom of the kite string”, into the highs and the lows that come with the “phases of the moon” of their lives.
Unfortunately, it’s the normal everydayness that we don’t see enough of. Kay has bipolar disorder, and the play is a confused, high-speed roller coaster of emotion, exaltation and darkness.
But what it doesn’t give us is enough of a sense of them as a couple, or Kay as a person, to make it believable. And so her voice in this is diminished, and her life and her condition become something that’s happening to somebody else.
Left alone and without Kay to care for, her mother (played by Celia Imrie) is simultaneously loving, long-suffering and lost. Kay was her project, her responsibility, and with that passed on to John she feels both relief and resentment. As John says, “I love you, Kaye, but it’s fucking hard work sometimes.”
Kay’s brother, Sandy (Paul Hilton), on the other hand, compares her ‘moods’ to play acting or alcoholism. He is brutal and brittle as the child that didn’t need to be worried about, with all the bitterness that comes with that.
The play rolls out like a hallucination so that at times it’s hard to keep track. There’s Jesus bearing apple juice and dead bodies, childish scribbles instead of artwork, a phone call from an icy far-away land or the terrible solution in the cellar. What’s real? I have no idea.
There are snippets of a lovely love story, some funny snaps of dialogue that had me laughing out loud, and many of the frustrations of family and responsibility do ring true.
There are real bruises here, real lives portrayed, but Haddon has let himself down by portraying mental illness like it’s contagious or at least some kind of biological fate: passed from father to daughter, from mother to child, and from Kay to John himself.
It infers an inevitable, ugly end where we are all doomed to an ever-repeating cycle. And when it’s no longer clear whose fantasies are whose, we watch as John disintegrates into his own, much worse madness, where even murder is justified.
Or is it? (I’m so confused).