Review – Polar Bears, Donmar Warehouse

Tuesday 6 April 2010

Who knew that at one stage of its decomposition a corpse smells like parmesan cheese?

It’s enough to put the Whingers off their penne arrabiata.

But the Donmar‘s latest production, Polar Bears, the first stage play by acclaimed The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time author Mark Haddon, rather put them off something else altogether: going to the theatre.

The graphic description of a decaying body proves strangely fascinating, but it’s one of the few moments where the Whingers’ interest perked during this dreary piece. We didn’t really need to see a corpse dragged on stage as there already was one littering the Donmar’s stage – the play itself. And that whiff sure wasn’t parmesan.

Perhaps we missed the point, perhaps it has hidden layers of meaning with dark humour bristling beneath the surface. Perhaps we just didn’t care. Perhaps we’re just too stupid.

In Polar Bears Jodhi May‘s Kay is suffering from bipolar (no pun intended according to Time Out’s interview with Haddon) disorder and the play looks at how her illness affects those around her. Her mother Margaret (Celia Imrie), brother Sandy (Paul Hilton) and boyfriend John (Richard Coyle) all have different responses. The trouble is that none of them were very convincing. And the scenes are shown out of order. And some of them aren’t real.

The Whingers felt doubly betrayed because they had actually been looking forward to this. Andrew was bowled over by Curious Incident and was hoping for something similarly audacious. Well, it certainly has its sights set on audaciousness but in doing so utterly failed to engage the Whingers on any other level.

The opening scene doesn’t really help. When Sandy finds out the atrocity John has committed his reaction isn’t nearly extreme enough (we can’t say more than that: spoilers and so on). The portrayal of bipolar disorder didn’t convince us either: it was all extremes of behaviour (friendly and aggressive) but nothing in between. But perhaps the Whingers are taking things too literally?

The stuff about polar bears, the tediously long fairy story, the appearance of Jesus was all rather clunky as was the staging: some scenes are played out with characters having conversations with each other from different levels of the set for no apparent reason. Perhaps it was a metaphor for the extremes of bipolarism (bipolarity?).

It’s a shame it all felt so forced because there is some neat writing at times (John talks about his relationship with the troubled Kay as “holding the bottom of the kite string” and her brother believes she enjoys “the romance of f***ing everything up”). The despair of those around Kay occasionally resonates but there’s too much intellectual name-dropping cluttering it all up: Greek myths, Nietzsche, Descartes, Kierkegaard, Übermensch are just some of the names and philosophies littering the piece. A man in the audience near the Whingers chuckled smugly and loudly enough to let the rest of us know he was catching each reference like an expert fielder. It was the only time in the play’s 90 minutes Phil felt any emotion – he wanted to slap him.

The effective lighting (Jon Clark) lends a strange disorienting atmosphere and the fractured structure are all presumably to reflect the state of Kay’s mind. There’s an ambiguity about the other characters, particularly in Richard Coyle’s excellent John. His behaviour suggests Haddon is asking who among us are really sane. The Whingers, who have always struggled to fill their picnic hamper, sandwich-wise, find that tired old question surprisingly easy to answer.

But, most seriously, even the wigs were disappointing. We couldn’t tell that people were wearing them! Some might say this is the sign of a good wig, but we say, “Shame on you, Mr Richard Mawbey!” Pile it high, that’s our wig motto.

According to one of the characters the philosopher’s job is to ask questions such as Do we have free will? What is knowledge? Is this reality? Well, all the Whingers really wanted to know was the secret behind the (presumably inadvertent) cure for Andrew’s insomnia: having had a week of being unable to get to sleep until about 2am, Andrew was among the ZZZZs within 20 minutes leaving Phil to cope alone for most of the remaining 70 minutes.

Haddon may believe (again in the Time Out interview) “we all know deep in our heart that theatre is better for the immortal soul than TV, don’t we?” Phil’s soul didn’t feel better after this and thinks Haddon would be much healthier if he watched more TV. Polar Bears left us cold.

07/04/10 Update: Here’s what everyone else thought.


Two out of Five: slightly corked or vinegary

7 Responses to “Review – Polar Bears, Donmar Warehouse”

  1. Ian Shuttleworth Says:

    Damn, I really shouldn’t have read that two hours before going to the press night.

    Note to self: don’t chuckle smugly at the allusions. Unless they manage to work in Rilke.

  2. Ian Shuttleworth Says:

    No Rilke. No chuckles.

  3. jay Says:

    No chuckles, no tears either, it wasnt quite depressing enough for those.

  4. A Clown Says:

    But…but… If I thought I had any chance of convincing you otherwise I would, but I suspect it’s a lost cause.

    I would just say that I thought the believability of the opening scene was deliberate as it put into question the veracity of everything that we witnessed, there’s a suggestion later on that that scene might even have just happened in John’s head: he may have just imagined doing what he said he had (that’s what I think anyway).

    But you don’t even care do you?!

  5. CGG Says:

    I went tonight and I’m glad I went.

    There was lots of interest, lots to think about, and some excellent scenes and speeches.

    There were, however, some awful bits (eg the long little girl monster story, the description of the body rotting, the story about how wonderful Norway is) and there were some confusing bits (is that their daughter? can she draw or not?).

    I didn’t think it was depressing at all (contrary to the Telegraph review) but just refreshingly honest about the meaning of life.

    I’d say – go and see it, and just put up with a bit of indulgent crap scenes and look for the good bits.

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