Back when spoken word artist Polarbear was a young cub trawling the roads of Birmingham and answering to the name Steven Camden, he always felt he was different to his neighbours. “People would see me around – blue eyes, pale skin – they wouldn’t know.” Polarbear is referring to his mixed heritage; his mother is from Jamaica and his father from Ireland. His house felt unlike “any other house on the street”.
Two years ago I partook in the spoken word workshops Polarbear teaches at the Roundhouse, Camden as part of its poetry collective and became aware of the subtle array of cultural influences that season his stories [read A Younger Theatre’s feature on Roundhouse’s Rubix Poetry Collective for more information]. When Polarbear speaks about his past at any length, it becomes apparent that it is integral to his work, even when it’s not immediately obvious.
“My mum and dad met at art college,” recollects Polarbear, a faint trace of surprise lingering in his eyes though he admits to having found out this piece of information about 10 years ago. He stresses, however, that his family life was far from the traditional sense of creative. Both his parents trained to be teachers and, when work was sparse, his father put in hours at the coal mines. Polarbear himself spent a large part of his childhood under the care of his grandmother and stepfather, who he describes as “both strong Jamaican characters”. This was a household where “people just got on with stuff. Not much talking about things. People wouldn’t stand for any crap. It means when you say you’re going to do something you do it.” There weren’t many books around, but there was “a load of stories” and he reminisces about the flamboyant and colourful characters who visited his house as a child, both real and imagined, closely related and distant.
Old Me, Polarbear’s latest show, seems almost autobiographical. In his own words, it is “more animated and in your face” than his usual understated style. “It’s the most immediate thing I’ve ever written. It’s going to be very blunt in places – but on purpose. It’s more gutsy, but hopefully no less crafty. The whole thing is about conviction. I’m just nervous about doing it justice.” Switching things up and turning up the volume on his opinions and passions is a pivotal move in Polarbear’s career, but evokes mixed emotions. “I hate the idea of it. I perform because it’s the immediate way to get it across, and people ask me to do it. I enjoy sharing the story. But in terms of [rating] the process, [performance] is nowhere near the top. The ‘making’ is. Bouncing ideas off someone – that’s the juice.”
It’s been six years since Polarbear left his job at a construction site in Birmingham and made his way to London. Old Me centres on the crucial moments of his life. “I went straight from school to A-levels to university, even though there wasn’t anything I really wanted to do. I did stupid boy things for longer than they probably should have carried on for. I grew up late basically.” During the course of our interview, he repeats the phrase “Everything changed over the course of six months!” a few times: an incredulousness towards, and appreciation for, the twists and turns of life. “All of a sudden there was something I wanted to do, somebody I wanted to be with, there was a kid coming, and I’m now a freelance artist. There’s some irony in it. That thing of ‘everything you thought was the case’ is not. Everything that I thought about London and artists was not the case. And if it is the case, then I am now something that I would not like!”
In keeping with his previous hugely successful pieces, Return and If I Cover My Nose You Can’t See Me, Old Me incorporates visual projections, music and storytelling. However, Polarbear’s latest show appears to be set apart from the rest by its promise to be frank, controversial and “a little bit sweary”. An exciting – and insightful – new venture for one of the sharpest spoken word artists around.
Old Me, written and performed by Polarbear, is running at the Roundhouse, Camden from until Saturday 3rd December. For more information and to book, visit the website here. A limited amount of tickets for under 26s available for £5 (in person or via telephone only).
Photo of Polarbear by Idil Sukan