Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh – until 24 December 2015
Guest reviewer: Hugh Simpson
“Two winter’s tales”: Tracks of the Winter Bear, the Traverse’s pre-Christmas show which plays up until Christmas Eve, is an odd beast.
That one title covers two wintry (but not festive) plays by Rona Munro and Stephen Greenhorn. Although the resultant animal is intriguing, diverting and tender, its two heads are pulling in opposite directions rather than working in harmony.
Greenhorn’s first half features Deborah Arnott as Shula, grieving for the loss of an old friend who too briefly became something more. There is nothing inherently wrong with the backwards-in-time way the story is told, but it does immediately provoke questions as to why it was done.
There is a definite suspicion that a more conventional linear telling would have pointed up the fragmented nature of the storyline. Furthermore, the heavy-handed metaphors and occasionally melodramatic dialogue would have been even more intrusive. Unfortunately, these are criticisms it cannot fully escape even in this form.
A feeling persists that the play is at least one draft short of being finished, and the excellence of much of its staging cannot overcome this. Arnott is heartbreakingly real; Karen Bartke, as her lover Avril, is also extremely impressive. In what is essentially a two-hander, the cameo appearances by the other performers (however well done they are) serve only to muddy the waters and point up the unfinished nature of the enterprise.
Thrown into sharp relief by Kai Fischer’s set – minimalist and encased in a cage of gauze in a strip between two banks of audience – Zinnie Harris’s clear-eyed direction only reinforces that there is something here that ultimately does not hang together.
Rona Munro’s second half comes off better. Here a subtly altered set, Simon Wilkinson’s icy lighting and David Paul Jones’s doomy sound seem much more in tune with a magic realist tale featuring Jackie, a disappointed woman on the run from yet another dead-end job, and a ravenous polar bear.
Kathryn Howden (Jackie) and Caroline Deyga (Bear). Photo Mihaela Bodlovic
Kathryn Howden’s Jackie is a tremendous characterisation, bitter but not broken, dealing excellently with the rococo comedy flourishes of dialogue by Munro that she has to carry largely singlehanded. Once again, the similes are definitely overused but are not so jarring.
Caroline Deyga’s bear, meanwhile, is a really fine piece of acting; otherworldly and strange, saying things about humanity without being cutely anthropomorphic. Orla O’Loughlin’s direction gives the piece power, fluidity and pace, and it is all over too soon – which could not really be said of the first half.
Giving the evening one title, and calling the halves Act One and Act Two, suggests there are real connections between the pieces going beyond a desire to give a full evening’s entertainment. However, the occasional similarities – in setting, and in local references – only reinforce that there is no profound connection, and neither piece really gains much from the other.
What they do have in common is a freezing melancholy, only partly alleviated in both cases by a sniff of redemption. This is not enough to make the production particularly Christmassy, and anyone seeking a seasonal shot of feelgood should probably look elsewhere. If you believe a sad tale is best for winter, however, you will relish the touchingly fragile and frostily sad vignettes so expertly acted here.
Running time 2 hours 10 mins (including 1 interval)
Traverse Theatre, 10 Cambridge Street, EH1 2ED
Wednesday 9 – Thursday 24 December 2015
Tues – Sat 7.30 pm (not Tues 24); Matinees Sat 19 and Thurs24 2.30 pm.
Tickets and information from http://www.traverse.co.uk/whats-on/event-detail/689/tracks-of-the-winter-bear.aspx