Friday, April 09, 2010

Polar Bears at the Donmar Warehouse

There’s an inherent difficulty in writing about mental illness. It’s something so profoundly internal, so ungraspable to those on the outside, that often it’s easier to depict the effect that a person’s behaviour has on those that love them rather than attempt to truly enter that person’s world. Mark Haddon’s dark, fractured debut play has moments of rawness and insight but it doesn’t quite avoid falling into familiar traps.

Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time took its readers inside the mind of a boy with Asperger’s, but, in his play, a certain distance is maintained between the audience and Kay, the central character, a young woman suffering from bipolar disorder.

Haddon’s play explores Kay’s relationship with both her mother and brother as well as with John, the man who will become her husband. John prides himself on being grounded and steady; he thinks he can keep Kay safe from herself, he sees himself as the person “holding her kite string.”

The play is intentionally unsettling. Time is a liquid thing and the scenes are shown out of order; some are clearly imaginary, events happening in Kay’s mind, but it is a strength of Jamie Lloyd’s production that it is never quite evident how much of what the play depicts is actually happening. From the macabre calm of the opening scene onwards, there is a potent, dreamlike quality to the staging that is intensified as the play progresses.

It is revealed that Kay’s father committed suicide when she was a girl and his father, in turn, was also mentally ill; Kay’s condition is talked about like a family curse, handed down through the generations, the flipside of her artistic talents (she dreams of illustrating children’s books) which she may have inherited from her mother. Both her mother and brother are deeply protective of her, but it is implied their protectiveness is in some ways damaging, keeping her dependent (her mother, living out in a lonely old house by a river, repeatedly asks for reassurance that Kay will never leave her). John, though initially besotted by her vibrancy, finds himself falling into the same patterns once the reality and relentlessness of her condition becomes apparent.

Jodhi May’s performance as Kay is well-judged, capturing both the extreme highs and lows of her illness; Haddon shows her sitting rain-soaked on the roof, wide-eyed with wonder about the possibility of other worlds and the idea of neutrinos streaming through her body. He also shows her foetal and fearful on the floor, terrified and sealed within her own dark sphere.

Paul Hilton captures the complexity of Kay’s brother Sandy, who dutifully sounds out her potential boyfriends for suitability but also perhaps envies his sister’s instability, especially as his childhood was equally marked by tragedy and yet he has managed to live a comparatively normal life. Celia Imrie also gives a strong performance as Kay’s mother, though, as written, her character is the least convincing. Her need to keep Kay close to her is juxtaposed with her confession of the relief she felt following her husband’s death, freeing her from the constant fear. In these moments of revelation the writing feels a little too blunt and controlled.

Richard Coyle’s genial John is the most ambiguous of the characters, but in making him an academic philosopher, Haddon too obviously makes him the mouthpiece for the play’s Big Questions about life and love and the inevitability of decay. This device somewhat limits him as a character.

Haddon clearly relishes the puzzle-like quality of the play and provides plenty of questions to be picked over but he’s also not immune to cliché. Kay explains the beauty and the pain of her condition via a lengthy fairy tale and, in a somewhat tonally misjudged scene, she converses with Jesus. The simple two-level set, designed by Soutra Gilmour, is effective, neatly echoing the split within Kay, but the ominous flickering lighting again seems a step too far into the familiar: mental illness by numbers.

This is a play that plants itself firmly in the mind, but it’s most effective when it’s stillest, when it allows its audience to catch a glimpse of Kay as a person rather than as a device, a conduit for narrative game-playing and philosophical debate.

Reviewed for musicOMH

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