by Debbie Cannon
Many people are familiar with at least part of the story of Wojtek the ‘soldier bear’, which inspires this piece by Theatre Objektiv at Hill Street Theatre. Bought as a cub by Polish soldiers in 1942, Wojtek’s journey carried him through Iraq, Palestine, and Egypt into Italy, where he was enlisted as a private into the 22nd Artillery Supply Company of the Polish II Corps, carrying their ammunition and becoming immortalised in their emblem (which also features on the stage, here). Demobbed to Scotland after the war, Wojtek spent the rest of his life in Edinburgh Zoo, occasionally popping up as a guest on children’s TV stalwart Blue Peter.
Anyone expecting a kind of ‘incredible journey’ story for bears, however, will not find it here. This version of Wojtek’s life is more poetic and abstract than realistic, incorporating storytelling and physical theatre. Wojtek is a walking, talking anthropomorphized bear, and this is as much the tale of Piotr, the Polish corporal who becomes Wojtek’s surrogate ‘mama’ and the other main character in the play. Through Piotr and Wojtek, and the backdrop of the Polish experience in World War II, the play probes the ideas about loss, freedom, betrayal, and isolation from one’s people, in which it seems primarily interested, on both a personal and political level.
There is great beauty, emotion and vigour in this piece, running through all the elements of its production, from script and performances to music – and the set on which it’s played out. An illuminated disk, tilted towards the audience, provides a stage which is both visually striking and a versatile space for the two performers to move around and on, becoming at one moment a forest clearing, at another a boat over the side of which a seasick Piotr lurches. A violinist (Sue Muir) is positioned to the side of this set, but is a clearly visible part of it. Her live music and ‘soundscape’ add their own character and vitality to the play.
The performances by the two actors are the lifeblood of the piece, full of truthfulness and energy. James Sutherland performs Wojtek without make-up, in simple T-shirt and trousers, and only occasionally takes on full animal physicality, but his stance and movement still feel utterly, convincingly bear-like, and the raw emotion in his facial expressions is breath-taking. John McColl brings a really touching sense of restlessness and regret to the role of Piotr, and the joy he derives from his relationship with the bear is genuinely heartwarming. The script by Raymond Ross is fascinating – highly imaginative, poetic and packed with vivid imagery. It follows a rough chronological structure, but shifts back and forward between remembered phases in Wojtek and Piotr’s lives, and at times the feeling of not knowing exactly where you are in the story is a little unsettling, especially towards the end.
This is a striking production, with a wonderful script and fine performances, which entertains and stimulates in equal measure. It’s an experience which will remain in your mind for many days.