The contents of the debut play by novelist Mark Haddon have been kept tightly under wraps, with both the author and the actors giving interviewers headaches with their reluctance to discuss it.
But it is difficult to write about a play without writing about the play. It may seem against their wishes to reveal that the main protagonist, Kay, dies. But this does not give away too much; it happens right at the start and the drama that follows is told in flashback as we discover why and how it came to pass that Kay ended up wrapped in a plastic sheet in the cellar.
Rather than a murder mystery, however, Polar Bears explores the mysteries of the human mind as it attempts to show how Kay’s psychological suffering impacts on herself, her brother, her mother and her husband.
When we meet her, Jodhi May’s Kay seems confident, strong and creative, and not in the least ill. Kay’s condition is never explicitly named, though as the play progresses and we see her episodes of manic excitement and periods of dark depression it seems clear she is bi-polar. Through her family we see people’s different reactions to this: mother Margaret (Celia Imrie) sees her daughter as a project and wants to keep her close almost more than she wants her to get better; brother Sandy (Paul Hilton), suffering from his own demons, thinks she is making it up to get attention; while husband John (Richard Coyle) is simply confused, naively thinking when he first meets Kay that he can cope, and gradually realising, to devastating effect, that he can’t.
It is obvious that this is written by the pen of a novelist. Often it is literary, often highly descriptive – Kay, he says, is like a kite and her husband John is holding the strings – and tends towards words rather than actions, featuring several monologues that could be read on the page just as well. Played out on Soutra Gilmour’s plain set, bare but for a back wall of glass doors, and with no costume changes and few props, Jamie Lloyd’s production focuses wholly on Haddon’s words.
Those words often conjure the delusions of Kay’s mind. At one point, in an episode with strange religious overtones, she chats to a Geordie Jesus who later turns out to be her former lover. Polar bears, princes, princesses and castles also all feature in Kay’s mind – though we never see them – used as metaphors to explain exactly how she feels to have this illness.
Though dealing with such a difficult subject, there is much humour in Haddon’s play, particularly at the start when John calls Sandy to tell him that he may have accidentally killed his sister. But this black humour gradually fades as we progress through the play and by the end it is more disturbing than funny, as we are forced to endure a graphic description of the decomposition of a body. The mind may be a highly individual mechanism, Haddon seems to be saying, but in the end we are only flesh and blood, and we all decompose in exactly the same way.