Tracks Of The Winter Bear
Neil Cooper - The Herald
Published: 10 Dec 2015
4 stars ****
SNOW-ridden pathway flanked at either end by flung-out furniture opens the Traverse's exquisitely realised double bill of seasonal but utterly grown-up plays. By the end of these two short works by Stephen Greenhorn and Rona Munro, however, designer Kai Fischer's gauze-shrouded white landscape has thawed considerably in a slow-burning and emotional show which, despite its title, is riven with all too recognisably human experience.
In the first piece, Greenhorn unravels a love affair between two women that rewinds from its final plague to its first flush as it moves from atop Arthur's Seat to a first kiss on Portobello Beach, and all points inbetween. Munro's follow-up work puts a woman in an initially adversarial situation with a real live polar bear. As the Bear channels the inner hunger of those she devours, both try to find their way home, be it in Abbeyhill or a winter wonderland far away.
Themes of mortality pulse both plays in productions directed respectively by Zinnie Harris and Orla O'Loughlin. There are heart-rending turns by Deborah Arnott and Karen Bartke as the first play's couple, Shula and Avril, while Kathryn Howden's blousy Jackie forms the oddest of alliances with Caroline Deyga's Bear in the second. There are lovely cameos too from Molly Innes.
Both works move at a stately pace that borders on the transcendentally woozy, a mood enhanced by a slowcore piano score by David Paul Jones. As each play eases its way gently beyond their initial chilliness towards something warmer, in different ways they become moving paeans to loss, healing and survival against all odds in this most painful and wildest of worlds.
Tracks Of The Winter Bear
Published: 11 Dec 2015
4 stars ****
Tracks Of The Winter Bear is a double bill of new one-hour plays by leading Scottish playwrights Stephen Greenhorn and Rona Munro, separate but deeply intertwined, in theme, imagery and even setting. And like all the Christmas productions Orla O’Loughlin has staged since she became artistic director of the Traverse, this is a show with a strong local twist, full of familiar, streetwise Edinburgh voices.
So in Act 1 - written by Stephen Greenhorn and directed by Zinnie Harris - the play begins at the top of Arthur’s Seat, where Shula is waiting for the first flakes of snow, while Avril circles round her, oddly sunlit in a sleeveless summer dress; it takes a few minutes for us fully to recognise that Avril is gone, her presence a ghostly one.
After that, though, Greenhorn’s script takes us on a powerful, winding flashbck journey through Shula and Avril’s secret love story, perhaps a little flat and over-written around the middle, but illuminated by a fierce central performance from Deborah Arnott as Shula, rough-edged, passionate, and on the brink of dire poverty; but transfigured by love, and faced with the ultimate question of whether she has the strength to walk on alone, without even the closure of being able to say goodbye.
And then, in Rona Munro’s Act 2, we see a similar drift of snow begin to settle on Bear - a mangy female polar bear just escaped from a shabby Highland “winter wonderland” - and on Jackie, inappropriately dressed in an acrylic Mrs Santa Claus outfit with high-heeled sparkly boots. Like Shula, Jackie is a middle-aged woman destined to be left alone and poor in Abbeyhill. The bear has already eaten Ian, Jackie’s Regent Bar chum, and fellow temporary worker in Santa’s grotto; and her prospects look grim, until the bear starts to form a strange bond with her, eventually running and swimming her all the way back home to Edinburgh - ”Oh look! There are the bridges!”
The play that emerges is a small-scale gem of stage poetry, illuminated by two terrific performances from Caroline Deyga and Kathryn Howden, and by the characters’ shared capacity to define emotions by taste; safety, it seems, tastes of biscuits, baked by someone who loves you. Orla O’Loughlin’s production is pitch-perfect; and with austere but beautiful lighting and design by Simon Wilkinson and Kai Fischer, and a gorgeous soundscape of silence, sound and music by David Paul Jones, this Traverse winter show emerges as the most beautiful and rewarding alternative to panto in town.