Directed by Aneesha Srinivasan
Performed by Jacoba Williams
Produced by Salome Wagaine
Presented by Broccoli Arts
12th – 23rd November 2019
The first show I ever saw at The Bunker Theatre was also the first I reviewed for Theatre Box: Devil With The Blue Dress, a play examining the Monica Lewinsky scandal in the light of #metoo. It seems fitting that, as the news is announced that The Bunker will be closing in March 2020 after three and a half years of being an amazing “temporary” theatre space, I should revisit it for a play so thematically similar and so very good.
Cally is a bear. She had a crazy run-in with a famous, hot, charming TV detective actor, responded the way anyone would, and now has any number of problems on her furry paws. She wasn’t always ursine, though – she used to be normal, like you. And that is the beauty of this piece: the life story we’re treated to is, up until that certain point, so very normal and relatable. From her pre-teen years, through adolescence, and into the first tastes of freedom that come with moving out of home, Cally travels through personal trials and tribulations that will sound deeply familiar for anyone in the audience who had the dubious honour of experiencing girlhood and the transition to womanhood. Eleanor Tindall’s crackling writing takes these common themes and treats them with poignancy and humour, showcasing that rare knack of taking the mundane and making it quirky, even deep. The world of schoolgirl friendships, adolescent crushes, celebrity obsessions, and first forays into sexuality are all-consuming and devastatingly impactful to those who are experiencing them, and Tindall offers us a glimpse back into that existence which we all (with varying degrees of thankfulness) have left behind.
Of course, it’s not all down to Tindall alone. The casting of Jacoba Williams as Cally is excellent: she jumps with perfect precision between childhood vitality, teenaged insecurity, young adult hedonism, and recently-turned-bear angst, always balancing physical and verbal comedy deftly against pathos and piercing social commentary. Director Aneesha Srinivasan brings her own creative flair to the staging, adding even more layers of meaning to an already-fertile script, as do designer Grace Venning and lighting designer Martha Godfrey, with touches that perfectly complement the play’s style and substance.
Before I Was A Bear is inspired by Ovid’s myth of Callisto, a story ripe for modern interpretation through feminist and queer lenses, which is exactly what Tindall has done. The bare bones of the plot are quite true to the source material, and there is little attempt to disguise this (anyone with a basic knowledge of Greek/Roman myth should be able to guess who a character named “Bolt” is based on, and that an affair with this figure probably won’t end well). A number of parallels are more subtle and clever, however – I really enjoyed the subtextual discussion of heteronormativity determining what “counts” as female sexuality, and the sub-inter-textual implications that perhaps Artemis and her gang of gal pals weren’t as platonic as male-dominated academia would have us believe. It is always refreshing to see portrayals of bi women which treat their female trysts as more than just physical (or for the male gaze), and [SPOILER] the theme of redemption through the love of other women – both platonically and romantically – is beautiful.
Honestly, there is so much to unpick in this one-woman show that I’m wary of writing yet another review-turned-essay here… Cally’s journey is crammed with so many topical topics that it sometimes feels a little heavy-handed, although they are mostly treated with admirable nuance and deftness. (Others remain more obscure – I have some theories about the meaning behind the progressively-revealed voicenote, but I’m not sure how much it really added to the piece.) It’s absolutely the kind of show that you should go and see with your wokest queer feminist artsy theatre friends (these were certainly the types who comprised 90% of the audience on the night I was there, which made me feel very at home) and dissect afterwards over cheap pub wine in order to get the most out of it. This is not to say, however, that you need a degree in Gender Studies or even a Tumblr account to enjoy this show – social philosophising aside, it’s just bloody good dark comedy, masterfully delivered. Make sure you catch it before the run finishes, or the regret may be unbearable.
Previous review: Crisis? What Crisis? @ COLAB Factory