Bears – Royal Exchange Studio

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The image of a solitary and forlorn polar bear drifting on a small piece of ice has become a universal symbol of global warming and provides the subliminal backdrop for this theatrical critique of climate change. The three-person cast of ‘Bears’ – dressed as polar bears and romping around an ‘icy’ set of white boxes – creates a narrative of carefree and careless consumerism which gradually chokes the habitat and ultimately results in destruction, despair and starvation. And not a single word is spoken.

In the opening section of the play, we are treated to some quite brilliant physical mimicry of polar bear gait and interaction. As the scene develops, however, the ‘bears’ display eccentric human-like behaviour, setting a table with a checked cloth and consuming a kit-kat supper with knives and forks and salt and pepper. Thereafter, the action flips between bear naturalism and anthropomorphic behaviour, which feels like a gentle insistence that this isn’t just a play about polar bears but also (and crucially) about us and our reckless disregard for the environmental impact of human hedonism. This is especially evident in the delightful scene where the bears frolic with aerosol cans and un-recyclable crisp packets and chocolate wrappers. It is bizarre, playful and comedic – but with a dark sub-text.

Throughout this first twenty minutes or so, I am engaged and intrigued. Then the pace slackens and bizarre turns into confusing. By the time the narrative develops and the action becomes chaotic and frenzied (as the bear habitat is destroyed) I find that I am somewhat detached from the whole thing.

In part, the difficulty arises from the ambition of the piece. It is positively brimming with ideas – some of which are quite brilliant; for example, in a powerful visual metaphor, twinkling fairy lights transmute into barbed wire, entangling and choking one of the bears. But each idea seems separate, and there just doesn’t seem enough to knit it together into a coherent whole.

The decision not to use dialogue is also a bold call. The cast are admirably expressive in movement, gestures and facial expression, but ultimately this is insufficient to create characters of any depth that I can relate to and invest in.

‘Bears’ is undoubtedly an unusual, ambitious and provocative piece of theatre. One of the judges for the prestigious Hodgkiss Award refers to it as a ‘call to action’. Clearly, the destruction of the polar bears’ environment is both an important literal story and an urgent metaphor for the impact of untrammelled consumerism on our own long term future. ‘Bears’ is, therefore, a thoroughly worthwhile theatrical endeavour. However, it ends up feeling too fragmented to elicit my emotional engagement – and a call to action needs to be affecting as well as intriguing.

 

(photograph by Chris Payne)

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