Arctic Antarctic: a bipolar play

BATS Theatre, Wellington

20/02/2006 - 23/02/2006

NZ Fringe Festival 2006

Production Details

Created by Charlotte Simmonds
Directed by David Lawrence

Coal really is as filthy as you think. Females really are as moody as you’re taught. People with disabilities really are as disabled as they look. If you’re prescribed drugs YOU SHOULD PROBABLY TAKE THEM!

Charlotte Simmonds
Donna Muir
Michael Ness
Alex Grieg

Theatre ,

1 hr 15 mins

A manic world

Review by Ewen Coleman [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 24th Feb 2006

Arctic-Antarctic by Charlotte Simmonds is a play for voices about BAD (Bipolar Affective Disorder) and BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder), modern words for manic depression and schizophrenia.

Performed in a straight line by the actors, their only movement is when they stand up after long periods of sitting. They also shout a lot, creating very much the manic world of the two central characters Yellow, played by the writer and Ellen, Donna Muir. Also on stage is their "voice" Gary (Alex Greig) and Ellen’s husband Steven (Michael Ness). 

That the playwright has a first hand knowledge of the plays subject matter – mental illness, is evidence by the way the complexities of the subject is portrayed in great depth. And there is no denying that this is a powerful piece of writing based not only of Simmonds experiences of mental health but the systems set up to deal with the illness and those closely effected by it and that no doubt writing the play had some therapeutic value for her.

And there is no denying that the four accomplished actors on stage give it their all to make the piece as dramatic as possible, but whether an audience needs to share in Simmonds catharsis is questionable and perhaps a more objective piece of writing to highlight the issues raised by her experiences would have been more enlightening and certainly more entertaining.


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Desperately seeking equilibrium

Review by John Smythe 22nd Feb 2006

Equilibrium. It sounds like yet another medication to add to the list. And maybe it is.

The funny thing is we go to the theatre seeking drama then when we’re confronted with it in the very real form of mental illness, the relentless roller-coaster is almost too much to bear. What makes it compelling is the delusional truth of the subjective experience.

For those observing it – I was going to say ‘objectively, but that’s a big ask – the extreme highs are almost to be envied, until the extreme lows kick in. Equilibrium. Please. Except that can also mean tedium. Damn. Not good to mix your medications …

Janet Frame proved literary art can be made from the raw resource of mental illness; that what the world may see as madness can also generate genius. She worked her material over and over then delivered in a form where readers could come to it, individually and privately, at their own pace.

Charlotte Simmonds has made a play of her experiences which means groups gather in public to receive it at a given rate without the respite of a quick cuppa or some other reassuringly routine distraction. Shared this way, Arctic Antarctic: a bipolar play is a gruelling yet inspiring hour and a quarter that cannot help but leave you – you cannot help but leave – feeling more aware of what it is to live with mental illness.

Simmonds also plays the autobiographical role of the borderline personality disordered Yellow, who (to give the work a real-world reference point) lives in a community house with bipolar and sociopathic Ellen (Donna Muir), who may or may not have been a promising opera singer, and Steven (Michael Ness), Ellen’s long-suffering but staunch husband of 14 years. Yellow by the way, is called Ellen too. Or was that Ellen Two?

Also incumbent are their multifarious mental illnesses, embodied in the singular person of Gumball Gary (Alex Grieg), a ruthless commentator for the audience and rigorous confronter of the characters. He’s all-too real for Steven, too. His desperation and frustrations become distilled in a rampant hatred of Gary that propels him the hell out of their lives.

Tightly directed by David Lawrence, interaction is largely eschewed for isolation, each in their own pool of light, and self-centred preoccupation in their own internal monologues. (As I understand it, anger-driven verbalising of the internal monologue is a recognised symptom of mental illness). Communication between characters is largely, or minimally, confined to shouts of "Go to bed!" and the like.

Jealousy is the surprising and somewhat bizarre thread that binds the characters together. Even I cannot help but envy a person who, while I just see traffic in the streets, sees "two trucks, pretty full of dirt, pass each other like a palindrome."

It is the authenticity of the often poetic writing and of each riveting performance, so truthfully captured in this less-is-more production style, that compels us to empathise with compassion from our "there but for the grace of God …" perspectives. I imagine those who live closer to it in real life would also find efficacy in discovering they are less alone than they so often feel, but that’s not for me to determine.

How does one end such a never-ending story? Yellow finds her equilibrium, for the moment at least, by writing her illness a letter. And Steven returns with the DVD-player. Choice.

[The programme, written by Charlotte, is a very neat yet unusual list of thank yous from which she is absent as an actor (Thank you Charlotte Simmonds for Yellowing). She also thanks "all the boys who tried to date me – it was really sweet of you to give it a go" and ends with a "most of all, thank you" to her medication "for totally ROCKING OUT!!" This, too, says it all.]


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