Polar Bears / Andersen's English
Various venues
March / April, 2010
I find reviews of plays dealing with mental illness among the most revealing of reviewers’ attitudes and understanding, and the crits of Mark Haddon’s Polar Bears are no exception.  Quentin Letts sees protagonist Kay’s problem as being that she “has a split personality”; Tim Walker, as subtle in his distinctions as ever, calls the play simply a “depiction of madness, or bipolar disorder as we are supposed to call it these days”.  (This is the kind of taxonomical grasp that led World War I panels to classify shell-shock as “lack of moral fibre”, leading to the execution of more than 300 sufferers.)  Statistics show that one in four of the British population will suffer from some form of mental illness in any given year, yet some of us either can’t or won’t distinguish between basic kinds.

It’s not as if they have no examples to draw on: I am hardly the only critic known to be a unipolar depressive (sometimes I feel at least half-seriously that I miss out on the fun of the manic phases of bipolarity), and of course Paul Taylor’s lengthy, insightful review is written with the knowledge and experience of one who lives with a similar (though less intensive) bipolar condition to Kay’s.  I’m not suggesting that DSM-IV should be every reviewer’s bedtime reading, but such casual and on occasion even blithe ignorance about any other comparable number of people in the population as a whole – three times as many as the entire non-white UK population, four to five times as many as the homosexual population, more even than the entire non-Christian or non-professing-Christian population of the country – would be seen as clearly culpable.


The “as we are supposed to” mentality also seems to manifest in Quentin Letts’ review of Andersen’s English.  He writes: “The creed of ‘colour-blind casting’ insists that a black man can play a white man […] and that audiences and critics should not protest, but I’m afraid it is absurd here.”  It strikes me that Quentin is here making a basic error of implicitly equating “should not protest” with “should not notice”; it doesn’t seem to occur to him that we may have been meant to pay attention to the casting of Danny Sapani as Hans Christian Andersen. 
Aleks Sierz, on the same page of this issue, grasps it entirely and deals with it almost in passing: Andersen’s “Danish otherness”, he notes, is “emphasised by the fact that he is played by a black actor”.  When the only non-white member of the cast is playing the only character from outside the hermetic Dickens household, it’s surely not unreasonable to wonder whether there might be a connection.  Max Stafford-Clark has apologised if the after-effects of his stroke lead to his occasionally leaving actors too static for too long, explaining that he loses them from his now-limited peripheral vision... but he is unlikely not to notice such a correspondence, and unlikely not to intend it to be noticed and understood.

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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