Wojtek the Bear

Wojtek was an extraordinary bear, and this play that tells his story is an equally extraordinary piece of theatre. Bringing together ethereal live violin music and a script that veers between the naturalistic and the poetic, Wojtek the Bear shows the relationship between the bear who became a soldier with the Polish army(played with spectacular agility and power by James Sutherland), and the Lance Corporal who mothered him, Piotr Prendys (played by Gavin Paul). Beginning with the pair in an almost spirit like form, longing to revisit and relive their past, they then enact their first meeting, their trials and tribulations in war, and the fear they felt in peacetime - fear of Wojtek’s captivity, and of being unable to return to Poland.

Raymond Razkowski Ross has blessed us with a beautiful script, and the cast with an incredible performance

The story is told with only two actors, with the fiddle providing incidental music and sound effects, like that of the biting wind. The set is similarly minimal, a disc bearing the logo of Wojtek carrying an ammunition shell, but this is all that is needed. Sutherland and Paul have an incredible chemistry that brings the characters of man and bear to life; even though Sutherland is dressed simply in brown, with no makeup or mask, his movements and his voice convince us that he is the bear, from childish cub to one fully grown. Paul contrasts perfectly with Sutherland’s Wojtek as the upstanding soldier who shares the bear’s longing to return safely home. At times when they speak one after the other, as in the chilling section concerning the Katyn Forest massacre, they seem to be almost one, echoing each other and completely in sync.

The pair not only bring across their characters in movement and speech but also through dance and song, and in addition they play other characters when the time calls for it, from priests to protesters, creating some of the more amusing (and saddening) scenes of the piece. Sue Muir’s music is a perfect complement to this, shifting between the upbeat tune of a ceilidh to a contrasting soldiers’ song.

Wojtek the Bear takes us on an extraordinary, exciting and terrifying journey, from the Soviet Gulag to the Middle East and finally to Scotland, and these changes are wonderfully shown not just in the performance but through Scott Anderson’s incredible lighting design, showing the heat of the desert, a lush green forest and the dark, blue chill of a winter’s night. The final tableau of man and bear bathed in firelight was especially moving, and indeed the piece as a whole is poignant, thought-provoking and affecting in its portrayals of war and peace, love and forgiveness.

Wojtek became a symbol of freedom and hope, and this is a performance that shows exactly why. Throughout the play Wojtek repeats “never before and never since have I blessed a human”, but Raymond Razkowski Ross has blessed us with a beautiful script, and the cast with an incredible performance. A truly incredible piece of theatre and storytelling.

Reviews by Catriona Scott

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The Blurb

The extraordinary story of Wojtek, the loveable Polish soldier bear, who fought at Monte Cassino and died in Edinburgh Zoo. A man mothers a bear. An emotive journey from the Soviet Gulag and Persia to the Middle East, Italy and Scotland. A story of love and loyalty, war and peace, heroism and hope. Award-winning production twice toured to Warsaw. Written by Raymond Raszkowski Ross. Directed by Corinne Harris. Total theatre with live music. ‘A mighty performance’ (Times). ‘A bold piece of soul-searching’ (Stage). ‘Grips like a bear hug’ (ThreeWeeks.co.uk). ***** (BritishTheatreGuide.info).