A history lesson and an acting master class

Theatre Objektiv bring the story of Wojtek the Bear to the stage in Coldingham. James Sutherland (Wojtek), John McColl (Lane Corporal Piotr Prendys), Sue Muir (musician)
Theatre Objektiv bring the story of Wojtek the Bear to the stage in Coldingham. James Sutherland (Wojtek), John McColl (Lane Corporal Piotr Prendys), Sue Muir (musician)

Now for many the story of Wojtek the bear is one they know well but I dare anyone to say they were expecting what they saw at Coldingham Hall Theatre last week.

The four legged friend of the Polish army has been written about in text books and novels, most recently by Berwickshire author Aileen Orr, but never before had he been given a voice on stage.

Well thanks to writer Raymond Raszkowski Ross and director Corinne Harris, all that changed and after receiving rave reviews at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe and more recently in Warsaw, ‘Wojtek The Bear’ set up camp in this neck of the woods last week, nearly 70 years after Wojtek himself arrived in Berwickshire with the Polish army at the end of the Second World War.

Like in many films and TV series based on the war, it would have been very easy for Raymond and Corinne to fill the stage with a cast of thousands but instead they put their faith in just two actors.

But after their performance in Coldingham last Thursday, James Sutherland and John McColl proved that any more than two would certainly have been a crowd and the broth would perhaps have been spoiled.

I presumed the character of Wojtek would not have any dialogue, after all he wasn’t a character in a Disney movie, and I fully expected James to play him wearing a full bear costume but I was wrong on both counts.

And my error of judgement was very much a positive thing as Raymond’s script gave Wpjtek a chance to be heard.

Obviously no-one knows exactly what the famous bear was thinking or feeling during his time on earth but Raymond tapped into the psyche of a bear who lost his mother at a young age, was a huge attribute to the Polish army and ended up thousands of miles from home.

A simplistic ensemble of brown t shirt and brown trousers meant that James’s Wojtek wasn’t a novelty, cartoon-like character.

Yes there were plenty of merry moments, with dancing, play fighting and jokes all being shared, but there were also some darker parts to the play where the lid was lifted on Wojtek’s inner turmoil.

For James to have been wearing any sort of mask, would have, in my opinion, completely ruined the show.

As well as his fantastic use of movement, James’ facial expressions were an essential and effective asset to the performance.

Wojtek was a character with many layers and in a split second, a change in stature or expression would offer an insight into the bear’s state of mind.

The play focused on the close bond between Wojtek and Polish soldier Lance Corporal Piotr Prendys.

As Piotr, John was not only Wojtek’s best friend and comrade he was also like a mother to him.

And like Wojtek, Piotr wasn’t without his troubles.

Fighting for his country but unaware of the welfare and whereabouts of the wife and children he left behind, Piotr too was a ball of emotions.

He too enjoyed happy times but then as seen when he confided in a priest, following the army’s journey to Scotland, he had a lot he wanted to get off his chest.

And John also got to the heart of Piotr’s constant role changes in respect of Wojtek.

One minute he was his drinking partner, the next his carer and the next his superior; meaning John’s demeanour and tone of voice was ever changing.

Although the two were the only actors on stage, they were joined by a third person- violnist Sue Muir.

Although her role was very understated it was just as pivotal to the performance.

She used her violin to not only set the scene but also to portray a certain emotion or create a sense of happiness, sorrow or danger.

Sue’s musicianship was particularly effective during the scene documenting the Battle of Monte Cassino, with Sue’s bow frantically moving up and down the violin to signify sirens and bullets being fired.

The lighting was also a well used tool in creating a certain ambience and made the scene when Wojtek is left in Edinburgh Zoo for the first time all the more heart wrenching.

If I was to sum up ‘Wojtek The Bear’ in three words it would be ‘simple but effective’.

There was no elaborate stage, expensive costumes or pyrotechnics that there could easily have been, instead there was one set and two professionals at the very top of their game.

For the strong connection between Wojtek and Piotr to be believable, it required John and James to have an equally intense connection on stage and that was exactly what they brought.

They got to the heart of every up and down of the relationship and seemed totally immersed in their roles and the fantastic script.

The show also played in Coldstream Community Centre on Sunday and it’s only a shame it couldn’t stay in the region for longer.

‘Wojtek the Bear’ was not only a lesson in history it was a lesson in how to get to the heart of a story and bring it to life. This was theatre at its very best.