The famed brown bear Wojtek, found in Iran and later adopted by Polish troops in exchange for a mere few tins of processed meat during the Second World War, became a symbol of hope for soldiers, who also used him to transport goods and act as a heroic mascot. He was an iconic animal that helped dispel wartime blues and represented acceptance, bravery, and strife. More importantly, Wojtek united the people of Edinburgh, where he spent his final years. This staging of the beloved story follows a recently published account of Wojtek's adventures by Garry Paulin, and like Paulin, the production seems to have an understanding of the demands of adapting Wojtek's story into a narrative translatable on the stage.
Both John McColl and James Sutherland's Wojtek share astounding chemistry and lashings of physical buoyancy as they run through the bear’s life, from accomplished fighter to journalist fodder at the Edinburgh Zoo. The actors deliver a convincing interpretation of what must have been an intense companionship; the wrestling scenes are furiously animalistic and illustrate the sparky and very real bond present on stage, and at war, between human and bear, those two supposedly adverse creatures.
The work doesn't give enough, though, to sustain interest or maintain its realistic considerations. Serious themes often overtake enjoyable elements of folly, whereas the latter, when allowed, displayed the absurdity of the relationship justly.
An almost entirely vacant stage creates an intense experience, representing the solitude of both the bear’s post-war existence and of warfare itself. Wojtek's concerns about captivity is one of the heavier topics discussed and fits amongst a thread of realist, humanistic dilemmas introduced on stage.
It is the interpersonal relations and playful whimsy that will be remembered in a production that is at its best when displaying companionship on stage. Thicker dialogue and stretches of emotive anguish are a bit weighty when put in context with Wojtek himself: a wild animal is by its own merit a raw, raging, and entirely non-theatrical being.