Review: Tracks of the Winter Bear – Traverse, Edinburgh

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First published in The Times, Tuesday December 15 2015

Four Stars

 

An encounter between Mother Christmas and a talking polar bear sounds like the premise for one of Raymond Briggs’s wintry graphic novels for children. This double bill of thematically linked plays may dabble in the realms of the fantastic and metaphorical but, like The Devil Masters, last year’s seasonal show at the Traverse, the content is aimed squarely at grown-ups.

The sense of occasion begins even before the house lights go down, with the audience instructed to follow a set of bear tracks down to the reconfigured in-the-round auditorium. The action unfolds in an enclosed central performance space that recalls a glass museum display case. Kai Fischer’s clean, crisp design of jutting icebergs and falling snow, beautifully lit by Simon Wilkinson, inspires a feeling of warm melancholy. You can just make out the soft crunch of the snow underfoot as the all-female cast pads about the stage.

(L-R) Karen Bartke (Avril) & Deborah Arnott (Shula) Image by Mihaela Bodlovic_01

 

Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic

The more sombre of the two pieces is Stephen Greenhorn’s opener, which focuses on the grief experienced by Shula (Deborah Arnott) following the death of her lover, Avril (Karen Bartke). Like Pinter’s Betrayal the story is told mainly in reverse chronology, beginning with a testing final confrontation between Shula and Avril’s ghost and moving backwards through a series of two-handed encounters to the thrill and promise of a new relationship. Arnott is superb in the lead role, really ringing the changes as her character sheds her winter apparel and the burden of sorrow. The downbeat subject matter gains a certain levity from the staging and atmosphere while Zinnie Harris’s production ends on an appropriately festive note of possible redemption.

(L-R) Kathryn Howden (Jackie) & Caroline Deyga (Bear) Image by Mihaela Bodlovic_18

Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic

Act Two, written by Rona Munro and directed by Orla O’Loughlin, is a beguiling tragicomic vignette, with Kathryn Howden’s red-suited Highland seasonal worker teaming up with an escaped polar bear (the brilliant Caroline Deyga) who has just finished ravaging her boyfriend. As the bear takes on the speech patterns and persona of whomever she devours, the stage is set for an evening of home truths and self-examination for Howden’s disaffected Jackie, culminating in a life-affirming gallop on the bear’s shoulders all the way home to Auld Reekie. O’Loughlin handles the shifts in mood with care while Howden seems utterly at ease with the heightened use of language.

 

These two ostensibly different plays dovetail via their shared winter motifs and complementary themes of love, loss and facing up to an uncertain future.

 

Box office: 0131 228 1404, to December 24

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