The programme description does not reveal much; one walks into the theatre anticipating a polar bear and a discussion on race and privilege in our society—is not that enough to draw anyone in? I was not sure how the two would link, but after having watched a musical theatre production about cancer (A Pacifist’s Guide to the War on Cancer) I was open to anything.
The play is unique from the start—we are to queue outside, and enter the polar bear’s ‘enclosure’ at the same time; this particular enclosure took the shape of a circle onstage. It follows a sequence of numbered envelopes, each providing instructions on how to make the most of your visit to the enclosure. The exact meaning of ‘the most’ is subjective of course, as we found out: when visiting an animal in its home will you disturb its sleep, and personal space so that you might see as much as possible, or will you respect its state of contentment at the cost of a ‘lively’ experience?
That is the question that divided the audience. By watching The Privileged you will think deeply about how important it is to follow instructions and respect others’ wishes without their explicit consent, because after all, we are dealing with a polar bear—it cannot stand up and say ‘don’t touch me.’
“I would normally provide more information but previous encounters informed me that people don’t care.” This powerful line calls to mind various real-life portrayals and stories, bearing in mind the title of the play and the fact that you can see the polar bear’s black skin underneath the white fur. At that moment I thought of the misrepresentation of people of colour in the news in order to paint a picture that is less accurate yet more palatable to certain audiences, and the stereotyping and judgement that people of colour face on a day-to-day basis.
While some of the symbols and imagery are more indirect, the juxtaposition of the facts and the context in which they were provided sets up a strong undertone that creeps to the surface as time goes on. We are told early on in the play that “this polar bear is a teenage male” and that the polar bear has “white fur and black skin,” information that can be seen as purely factual but which also proves to be useful in shaping an interpretation of the play and the messages it is successful in transmitting.
We are instructed to assert our dominance over the polar bear by feeding it only to restrict its eating; however, we collectively decided to ignore the later, upsetting instructions. I found this freedom of choice very interesting; while some of the more outspoken enclosure members were willing to speak out against aggravating and disturbing the polar bear, others were dead set on following the rules for the sake of order—interestingly, the presence of instructions seems to negate the fact that we are, at the end of the day, creating art on stage.
The Privileged is a production that I would experience again and again; it would be a completely different experience every time as you simply cannot predict the reactions of the public. We were faced with a choice that reflects the way you think about power, dynamics, and inherent rights to something else’s personal space. One of the most interesting observations was the fact that the polar bear was seen as ‘aggressive’ by some members once we had woken it up, removed its feet and encircled it. Is the bear ‘aggressive’ or provoked?
The relationship between the polar bear and the enclosure members that Harewood cleverly fosters through the instructions in the envelope is increasingly demonstrative of the objectification and demonisation of ‘polar bears’ in our society—make of that what you will.