Mark Haddon’s Polar Bears is an intense and dark work that has as its aim an effort to illuminate murky perceptions of mental illness, specifically bipolar disease in the case of the central character, Kay (Jen Grace). With such topics at its heart the play has the potential to become overwhelmingly bleak and disillusioned rather than elucidating, but the production here avoided this and what the audience was presented with was, for the most part, a thoughtful play.
The performances given by all members of the cast should be commended. At the heart of the play is a display of the capacity for mental illness to devastatingly effect those surrounding a patient. Euan Kerr playing Kay’s brother Sandy was given the best opportunity to showcase this when he trying to warn a potential suitor against pursuing a serious relationship with his sister, and he managed the gravity of the character’s cautionary tale well.
I felt the true standout performances of the show were those of Joe Viner, playing the husband of the troubled Kay; and Elizabeth Perry as Margaret, her mother. Consistent throughout, Viner deftly moved through several emotional states between scenes and his performance allowed the impact of the illness on those surrounding Kay to become apparent. Similarly, Perry was able to make one of the smaller, less developed parts into a well-rounded character, her performance far better than the script should have allowed for.
Haddon’s script has space for creative and imaginative direction. Kay’s disease flings her conscience from reality into a fantastical mania and I feel the director Cate Kelly could have capitalised on this further. Even occasional appearances from a clearly surreal character, Jesus (Nishant Raj), never lifted the play out of its stark realism, and this felt out of tune with the play’s disjointed, surreal structure. When the direction took on a surreal tone, notably during Kay’s moving oration of a dark children’s fairy-tale, the moment was the highlight of the play; Kate Marriot’s beautiful art was the focus here, the projections conjuring Kay’s wild imaginings to moving and allegorical effect.
Nevertheless, the production was engaging and for the most part coped well with potentially confusing time shifts, although this unfortunately faltered in the final scenes of the play and became confusing, dampening the play’s emotional impact. Despite this, Polar Bears was worthy of both time and attention. The strong acting and the importance of the issues it raises has made the play welcome as the first Mermaids production of this semester.