In 1942, a girl traded some food for a Persian bear cub. When the bear, whom she named Wojtek (Polish for ‘happy warrior’), became too big for her to look after, members of the 22nd Transport Company of the Polish army agreed to look after him. Whilst in their care, Wojtek became ‘one of the men’: he wrestled, saluted and drank alongside the soldiers. During the Battle of Monte Cassino, the largest land battle in the war, he carried crates of ammunition to the front. Quarter Too Ensemble tell this incredible true story in a wonderfully inventive show that blends humour, live music and moments of truly moving beauty.
Theatre’s power to include and delight all is magically reaffirmed.
The performances are superb. Wojtek is played by every cast member, each taking their turn as his story develops. They effortlessly adopt the bear’s physicality: lolloping on hands and feet, fists clenched, occasionally standing to hug the soldiers and to wash in the regiment’s hand-made shower. They each bring their own personality to the character, although Christian Woolf’s imposing height seems especially well suited and his turn as Wojtek is memorably strong and tender.
The staging is simple yet complex. Basic props become the regiment’s camp, various military trucks and the trenches and weaponry of the Italian battlefield. Ropes, tyres and crates are continually repurposed in a fine display of visual invention. It’s not the most original staging device but it’s pulled off with finesse and style. Accompanying all of this is live music, simple but perfectly played Polish folk songs on violin, guitar, harmonium and many other instruments besides. The songs underscore the emotive moments, drawing us into the soldiers’ unimaginably difficult world.
Wojtek doesn’t say anything deeply profound about the nature of warfare or animal captivity but that isn’t what the show is for. It aims to tell a remarkable story in a remarkable way and it succeeds wholeheartedly. A beautifully realised piece of theatre for all ages, this is an understated gem that pulls the heartstrings and leaves you smiling. We are all happy warriors by the end, as theatre’s power to include and delight all is magically reaffirmed.