Last Updated on 16th September 2015
F*ck The Polar Bears
The Bush Theatre
14 September 2015
There is no doubt that what the world needs now are plays that look hard at the troubling issue of our environment and what, if anything, each of us can do to to make whatever difference we can, however slight, to the future of that environment and thereby help shape that future environment for our children and our children’s children.
Farces, comedies, sit-coms, dramas, allegories, tragedies, mysteries, love stories, absurdist work, avant garde approaches – the subject is so important, every form can be the torchbearer for conversation and change. The more audiences are confronted and engaged by the topic, the more hope there might be for collective understanding and action.
In her new play, F*ck The Polar Bears, Tanya Ronder makes the point that the citizens of Pompeii were not taken completely unawares by the eruption of Vesuvius. They had warnings for days, long enough for some elders to head for the hills, to abandon civilisation as they knew it to ensure safety, life. Gordon, a millionaire energy company executive has a sort of nervous breakdown and muses with his trophy wife:
“If you asked those bodies from Pompeii if they had their time again, would they choose to stay or would they listen to the alarm bells and run, what would they say?”
Actually, it’s a clever question, neat and resonate. But it is insufficient to sustain 100 minutes of theatre time.
Ronder’s play, now in previews at The Bush Theatre, at least as directed by Caroline Byrne, is as fractured, scrambled and incoherent as its characters, all of whom are neurotic or obsessed about something. As a piece, it does not seem to know what it wants to be, nor what it is.
It feels like a farce as it plays out. Yet, it is described as “a raucous family drama about the cost of living the life of our dreams”. Bizarre and incomprehensible things happen to the characters and their domain, but mainly they are not played for laughs. The acting style, for the most part, tends to realism, even though the situation is not realistic. There is such earnestness about the acting that the laughs are few and restrained, and it is difficult to be absorbed in the narrative.
There are too many issues thrown into the pot by Ronder and, as a result, none of them get sufficient attention. Just as a narrative thread seems to be leading somewhere, it is cut off. This is particularly true of the tale of the recovering drug addict, but also of the complex relationship between the central couple, the husband and wife around whom everything revolves.
The plot is thin. Gordon and Serena want to buy a magnificent new house on the river, one with its own jetty. Serena fears Gordon does not make enough money to ensure they are not gazumped. He negotiates a new deal at the power company where he works; he has to topple the incumbent CEO and take his place and then enjoy a salary of £2.4 million (plus bonuses). The jetty looks secure.
Money and perception drive the couple. They argue incessantly and don’t seem to understand each other. Their lives are profligate, in vogue, and disposable. Despite the urgings of Blundhilde, the au pair who lives in, looks after their child, Rachel, and endlessly tries to rehabilitate them and the household into being energy and environment saving recyclers, they blunder along: they are the Pompeii gentry who don’t heed the signs of the approaching volcano.
Add Gordon’s brother, Clarence, a recovering heroin addict who wants to rebuild his sibling connections, an egg-hurling Vegan lesbian, a rampaging defecating hamster, a missing toy Polar Bear, lights that endlessly fuse, phones that won’t charge, a clothes dryer that won’t dry, a stolen secret document, and an unfeasibly large amount of pizza, and the ludicrous, but undeniably mad and decaying world of Gordon and Serena comes into focus.
The potential for farce could not be clearer – yet, that is not how the play is presented.
None of the characters are likeable or warm, except Clarence. Brunhilde is duplicitous and bombastic and Gordon and Serena morally and emotionally bankrupt. The points Ronder wishes to make might have been better served with more likeable and relatable characters; they definitely would have benefitted from more laughter.
When the rhetoric comes, like lava from Vesuvius, it is inevitable, suffocating and enervating. This deadens the importance of its message and the chances of that message really hitting home. It’s a wasted opportunity.
One key moment serves to illustrate the shortcomings. Blundhilde loses it and yells at her employers, lecturing them about the contrast in their lives:
“Shit. I save everything, the tiniest bit of plastic, I save, I have piles of mint wrappers in my room waiting to come down, I pick toilet rolls out from the upstairs bin. I break my brains working out where to put the lunch box when food is stuck to the sides, do coffee cups go in plastic or paper, what do I do with hardback notebooks when the cardboard has that layer of plastic on. Receipts with staples, long film with sticky labels, kitchen roll, padded envelopes…I be this is full of stuff you’ve not separated.”
It’s a meltdown of a specific sort, with the potential to be either hilarious or devastating (a wake up call). But as delivered here, it is just an awful torrent of confused and confusing sound, the words lost in an uncontrolled explosion. If you can’t understand what is being said, what hope is there of getting the point of what is being said?
And that is Byrne’s hallmark here – uncontrolled confusion. Emotions and characters ebb and flow on a stream of inconsistency. More control, a clearer paradigm for the performances, subtlety and excess (but coordinated, for a clear reason) and, most critical of all, a defined purpose. There is probably a fairly good absurdist farce hidden away in Byrne’s “family drama”. But it is well hidden.
Jon Foster is quite touching as the recovering heroin addict who comes to paint for free for his impossibly wealthy and hideous brother. His sense of shame and repentance is well judged, as is the little mischief that still twinkles in his eye when a pretty girl begs a favour. It’s a very real portrait of a character in transition. That said, the role really only fits into the overall themes when Clarence is used as a kind of tempering force between the disposable indifference of Gordon and Serena and the well-meaning anarchy of Brunhilde, which is not often. Otherwise, Clarence is like a slave from Pompeii – even if he could do something about the impending disaster, he is powerless to act.
The other adults in the cast, Andrew Whipp, Susan Stanley and Salóme R Gunnarsdóttir, cannot rise above the lugubrious writing or the meandering direction. Their characters have much in common with middle Ayckbourn characters – at one point (involving hamster faeces and shape-shifting polar bears) it was all but impossible to dispel memories of Absurd Person Singular and the giddy heights there reached. But here, unlike there, insufficient absurdity of character and individuality of spirit, even within clear types, meant fizzing out rather than bursting out. A pity.
Chiara Stephenson provides an interesting, albeit slightly dated, concept of excessive home life with a set that is functional but perhaps slightly too clever. Entrances and exits seemed contrived and, when the moment came, it was sad indeed that we did not see the results of the enraged vegan lesbian’s hurling of eggs (or, for that matter, Clarence’s redecoration efforts). Tim Deiling manages to create a constant apocalyptic effect with the lighting, even when the stage is awash with light – a clever, and highly effective, achievement.
This production of F*ck The Polar Bears does the text no particular favours and is unlikely to generate discussion or reflection. The arresting title suggests a level of riotous entertainment which is never even in sight, let alone attained. In Byrne’s hands it is more ridiculous than raucous.
But Ronder’s point about Pompeii is guaranteed to haunt you afterwards.