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
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
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
pay attention to the casting of Danny Sapani as Hans Christian
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.
for Theatre Record.