Polar Bears by Mark Haddon premiered at the Donmar Warehouse, London on 1st April 2010 to underwhelming reviews. Sadly, it completely passed me by at the time but at least there is the option of reading the script, and what a read it is. The play starts with a confession of manslaughter and the narrative continues out of chronology to delve deeper into the psychologies of the characters.
The story centres around Kay, a sufferer of bi-polar disorder, and her sedate, some may say boring, philosopher partner John. She is not, however, the only character struggling. Her father committed suicide and neither her mother nor her brother Sandy, who discovered the body, have fully recovered from the trauma. There is a particularly disturbing scene in which Sandy and Kay are younger, with him forcing her to recite the suicide note with a noose around her neck. Their mother seems unable to move forward with her life and warns prospective partners off Kay, potentially a defensive strategy to protect against loneliness and maintain control of her offspring.
We see the pressures Kay has had to contend with that would have shaped her personality as well as getting a glimpse of the confusion and fear that her illness causes. The focus on the resultant relationships with those closest to her is interesting and complex. Her brother Sandy is unsympathetic to her suffering, seeing the illness as an excuse, a way of blaming others for her failings. John tries his best to understand and be patient, attempting to gain a clearer sense of what Kay is going through by talking with her incredibly unhelpful family who remain closed. His struggles with this continue throughout.
Many reviewers of the play have bemoaned the lack of relief from the dark, that the story is just too confronting. Personally, I devoured it with great eagerness - there are moments of humour within the intensity of the bulk of the play. The characters are well drawn and their development is cleverly constructed. It would be interesting to see the piece performed but for now reading more than suffices. I don’t usually read plays but was very glad I made the exception for this insightful work.