Jodhi May On ... Haddon's Polar Bears
She plays Kay, a woman suffering from a psychological condition who is married to John (Coyle). When the moon is in the right phase, Kay is magnetic and amazingly alive. But when the darkness closes in, she is lost to another world, a world in which John does not belong...
Writer Mark Haddon is best known for his award-winning novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, which is told through the eyes of a teenager with Asperger syndrome.
May made her screen acting debut aged 12 in 1988 anti-Apartheid drama A World Apart, for which she won Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival. Since then, she has appeared in a broad range of film, TV and theatre, with credits for the latter including Blackbird (Edinburgh International Festival and Albery Theatre), The Seagull (Edinburgh Festival Theatre), The Talking Cure (National Theatre), Far Away (Theatre Des Bouffes) and Platonov (Almeida at King’s Cross).
It's quite difficult to describe what Polar Bears is about. What I can tell you is that it doesn’t happen in any kind of chronological order – though we rehearsed it in chronological order. It’s a jigsaw puzzle of fragmented scenes that the audience have to connect to make a whole.
The play is about a woman who (you think) has a mental disorder. You see what it's like to experience the extreme highs and lows that constitute Kay’s life, and how this shapes those close to her. The intention of the play is to create a sense of psychological reorientation. It's a really original, incredibly beautiful piece of writing that challenges theatrical conventions, as well as being a very moving and powerful story. And Jamie (Lloyd) is brilliant at mining a text’s possibilities - the writer and director are a perfect combination.
Polar Bears asks the question: what is madness? It opens that question out and tries to examine it from the perspective of how we define it and how difficult and subjective that process of definition is. Madness can be an extraordinary elevation in how you perceive the world: it’s a gift as well as a curse in terms of Kay’s experience.
There are certainly connections between Polar Bears and Mark’s novels. Not just in the sense that they are about mental illness, but in the way that he plays about with the medium. In The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mark redefines the landscape of the novel, and in Polar Bears he attempts something similar with the landscape of the play.
The architecture of The Curious Incident… was seen through the prism of the boy’s condition of autism. It is, tonally, very rich and extremely varied; comedy to tragedy and everything in between. Mark has a very witty way of looking at dark subjects. It's quite an adult fairytale, and I think he has that paradoxical sense of childhood fantasy being imbued with something quite macabre. The wit and humour of the play’s dark subtext is great and really pulls you in: humour is a brilliant device in that respect.
The play doesn’t set out to readdress misconceptions regarding mental illness. It is actually incidental in some ways that Kay has this condition – or this possible condition. The play is much broader: it encompasses the nature of love and relationships and asks more far-reaching questions than trying to redress our perception of madness. What Mark does brilliantly is allow you to perceive the world through this enhanced, or possibly distorted, prism.
Career to date
Acting was pretty much by accident - a happy accident though! A casting agent came to my north London state school and I was spotted to take the role of Molly in Chris Menges’ A World Apart. Acting was, strangely enough, not a childhood ambition. I got my Cannes award which got the ball rolling before I had time to think if I wanted to go to drama school. Instead, I got a place at Oxford University to read English. Doing a degree certainly helped me in terms of forensic textual analysis. It's great to have that ‘eye’ to examine a text. However, acting is not necessarily a cerebral intellectual pursuit, and it's important to concentrate on the instinctual process.
Jamie (Lloyd) and I met about a year ago. I remember seeing the Pinter plays (The Lover / The Collection) Jamie did with Richard Coyle and thinking they were absolutely brilliant …I thought I must work with this man! It’s very exciting when you see something and it just blows you away – this doesn’t happen very often. That is how you have to feel about plays like this: it is so demanding that you have to feel incredibly passionate about it. So to be working with them both now is a dream.
Working at the Donmar
The Donmar is an excellent theatre, an amazing, unusual chamber space. I don’t find its intimacy daunting, though I am conscious that an actor needs to calibrate for the space that he or she works in. However, for me, I think more in terms of the writing rather than the venue; where a play is produced is a secondary consideration.
We are very lucky in London to have such a rich theatre industry. I don’t think British theatre is ‘stuck’, I think we're in a golden age.
There is nothing for me in the pipeline I’m afraid…Always a case of seeing what comes! I think it is a terrible tendency for an actor to anticipate ‘the next thing’; it is liberating and exhilarating to just enjoy what is in the moment. You can’t plan…it can sometimes undermine what happens in the present. I feel extremely lucky to have the career that I have got. I feel incredibly privileged to work with the people that I have. Basically, as long as I get to do work that I am passionate about then I'm happy!