fri 21/06/2024

Tracks of the Winter Bear, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh | reviews, news & interviews

Tracks of the Winter Bear, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Tracks of the Winter Bear, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Ambitious if sometimes uneven double-bill of interlinked plays puts sorrow and regret at the heart of the festive season

Odd couple: Kathryn Howden as Mother Christmas and Caroline Deyga as the polar bear in the Traverse's bold Christmas offeringMihaela Bodlovic

The first surprise in the Traverse Theatre’s seasonal production comes on entering the theatre – being led backstage, then onto what’s normally the performing area, and finally to two ranks of audience seating either side of a gently undulating transverse strip of stage.

Designer Kai Fischer’s rethink of the Traverse interior makes the Edinburgh theatre’s Christmas show immediately feel special. And although dividing the audience to both sides of the action doesn’t ultimately serve much of a dramatic purpose, it neatly reflects the twoness at the heart of the brand new show: two Scottish writers, two directors, two (interlinked) stories, each a love story (well, sort of) about two very different creatures.

It's a rewarding, provocative alternative to Edinburgh's tinsel-tasselled pantos

And two very different approaches and outcomes, too – which counts as the show’s second surprise – even if they’re united in their themes of sadness and regret. "Act 1" (as the programme describes it) is a touching love story by Stephen Greenhorn, a classic Christmas weepie, unashamedly sentimental and heartstring-tugging, with scenes from the short-lived but intense affair between Shula and Avril delivered in flashback, out of order, blending fantasy and unreliable memory, so that its realities take some piecing together.

Deborah Arnott (pictured below, with Karen Bartke) is magnificent as the enigmatic, contradictory Shula, who’s travelled the world in search of happiness but returns home to Edinburgh to find it, fleetingly, where she first started, and Karen Bartke equally strong as the wounded, conflicted Avril. Blending nicely embedded local references – a date on Portobello beach; a grimy flat in Craigmillar – and cool poetry in Greenhorn’s writing, it’s simply staged in a respectfully gentle production by director Zinnie Harris. If there’s a whiff of soap opera about it, that only makes the story more immediate, and its deep sadness is tempered by nagging questions about hurting others to achieve your dreams. It’s a beautiful piece, generously delivered and genuinely touching.

Tracks of the Winter BearAfter the interval, however (and linked by a visit to a woeful Winter Wonderland somewhere in northern Scotland) comes Rona Munro’s far more ambitious – and somewhat more problematic – "Act 2". Here the love story is between a gobby Mother Christmas (Kathryn Howden, having a whale of a time with Munro’s gleefully effusive profanities) and an escaped polar bear, played with monosyllabic power and tenderness by Caroline Deyga. There’s an awful lot going on in Munro’s magic realist tale – the collision between Howden’s world-weary cynicism and Deyga’s animal magic; smells as memories; spirits talking from beyond the grave; and behind it all a search for home. And although there’s a lot to admire in Munro boldly throwing them all together, her contrasting elements tend to fight with each other, or cancel each other out, rather than melding into a greater whole. The production by Traverse artistic director Orla O’Loughlin stresses the tale’s manic humour and simmering violence beautifully, although even O’Loughlin seems nonplussed by an over-long section where the odd couple travels across Scotland, back home to Edinburgh.

There’s a huge amount to admire in the Traverse’s somewhat uneven seasonal double-bill, and it feels like a truly special event, one whose grown-up explorations of melancholy and resilience make it a rewarding, provocative alternative to Edinburgh’s tinsel-tassled pantos.

If there’s a whiff of soap opera about Stephen Greenhorn's Act 1, that only makes the story more immediate


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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