revew: Powder Keg – BEARS
devised by the company/
The Royal Exchange Studio/
BEARS is a dream, a poem. I’ve thought a lot and talked a lot since seeing Powder Keg’s wordless arctic ballet and what strikes me perhaps the most is its silence, and the versatility of it. The tundra of it. First and foremost, BEARS is a visual piece. The whole story could be told in a succession of photographs. Maybe Powder Keg should consider publishing the script as a picture book one day. Remembering the experience of the show is to spread out a series of images, like turning out a shoebox of polaroids.
Of course they’re bears. Of course they have hands, how else would they use a knife and fork? Yes, they’re having a picnic. Obviously it’s Pepsi and KitKats for lunch, what else would a polar bear eat, dummy?* The logic is the sort that can’t ever be questioned – we’ve already taken our seats, we’ve already decided to see three adult humans pretend to be polar bears, we’re already under. This is less suspension of disbelief as engaging in the play of it all. (A woman sat next to me cries out in delight at the sight of every familiar item of litter used as a prop, “KitKats!”, “Starbucks!”) The whole has the tone and physical storytelling of a silent black and white movie, all caricature and demonstration. And it’s absurd, it’s fun. You wouldn’t want to watch a realistic depiction of bears anyway, they’d just sleep or tear you to pieces.
For an ecologically conscious piece of theatre with strong reference to pollution and the slow death of ice and the planet, there is no educational aspect to BEARS, not really. At least, not in a deathy, factual, scientific sort of way. I’m not coming away with a wealth of zoological or ecological knowledge. Instead, it is a different sort of education – a stretching of empathy muscles – an invitation to care, about something absurd and beautiful and detached from you. But it leans on our knowledge (or ignorance) of the state of the Earth – of the melting ice-caps, the plastic in the oceans, the disappearing lakes, the clouds in the atmosphere, the death, the death.
BEARS is a dream, a work of fiction which reverberates heavily in reality, but we don’t need to be spoonfed facts to see its echoes in the real world. The power in BEARS comes from its ability to provoke reflection. Recognition of the subject matter is enough to force us to ask our own questions about our affects on the environment. I think.
Polar Bears aren’t people. If you met a Polar Bear it’d probably just straight-up kill you. It wouldn’t make a theatre piece about your beautiful fragility in the face of a natural world in a bear-manufactured state of decay. The secret interpretable lives of giant, snow-coloured bears that stalk the world north of me. The consideration of all the living, dying compass-points that inhabit the same planet as us. This is artificial – the world isn’t beautiful or meaningful until we say it is so. I am separated from bears – I am entirely different to them. Any implication that I have anything in common with these big killing machines isn’t so much untrue as it is an entirely contrived human notion. Bears aren’t poetry or theatre, those things are just tools we use to describe them.
But, y’know, that’s what makes BEARS so exceptionally human. We care more about bears than they ever will about us. We anthropomorphise because human is our only reference point. If I learn anything, it is about myself. I am taught a capacity to care intensely that the bear a human is pretending to be is in pain, that the bears I am pretending to see are lost and confused, that the living, feeling creatures I am pretending are right in front of me are slowly dying.
Like a dream, I am hauled out of it all too suddenly. The applause from the audience feels an exceptional intrusion – I would happily watch these three lie sleeping for another five, ten, fifteen minutes, perhaps an hour.
Fitting that it end in sleep.
*i mean Penguins obviously