This December the Traverse Theatre Company presents a new show written especially for their winter season. Tracks of the Winter Bear is a refreshing alternative to the bread and butter Pantomimes that usually dominate the festive period. Comprised of two distinct, but linked, one act plays, Tracks focuses on the devastating places that people can find themselves. With the success of The Devil Masters last year and Ciara before that, under Orla O’Loughlin’s artistic directorship, Traverse Theatre has made shows with a darker theme central to their winter season. Tracks is no exception.
Both stories appear relatively self-contained, (beyond an ursine theme) the main thing they share is the beautifully constructed space. The stage is an undulating, cat-walk like channel splitting the audience into two sides. Inside a mesh screen, separating the audience from the stage, the space is white and blank. Unlike the pantomime, there will be no help from the audience here. Everything that occurs is for the characters to deal with alone, or meshed in as they are with each other, together.
The first half explores the relationship of two lovers, Shula and Avril, by moving backwards in time, from its end at the top of Arthur’s Seat to their first kiss at Portobello beach. The writing is incredibly witty, however humour can sometimes feel misplaced. Written by Stephen Greenhorn, there are moments when the jokes fail to make the audience laugh. Without this, it’s difficult to bring the tragedy of the story into relief. The odd assortment of extras he uses to explore the context of Avril and Shula’s relationship tended to distract from their connection. Instead of a well-rounded portrait of two women finding expression for a long unspoken love, the affair seems malnourished, withered by the infrequent attention of a writer who wants to show a bit too much.
Rona Munro’s second half, directed by O’Loughlin, is altogether more rounded. Her writing is playful, but serious at its heart. Kathryn Howden plays Jackie, a middle aged woman working as Mrs Claus at an indistinct Winter Wonderland. Already unstable in the job, she is thrust into danger when a polar bear breaks loose from its cage. In the role of the Bear, Caroline Deyga stomps up and down the stage, swathed in furs, bringing a strong physicality to the role. At its best the script is funny and touching, although it does stall somewhat in the limited exploration by the bear through scent.
Very competently staged, Tracks leaves as much to the power of the script as it does actual movement. One way in which the two halves are tied together is an identical form of elevation. We see in the first half, a bed and an arm chair, angled toward each other from opposite ends of the curved stage. In the second half these have been replaced by angular white blocks, more reminiscent of icebergs than any natural Scottish scenery. The location really comes alive in both writers, the audience feels they are both following the bear’s tracks in the snow, and making their own.
Performances from the cast are largely very good. Deborah Arnott plays Shula in the first half well, there is genuine chemistry between her and Karen Bartke as Avril. Howden particularly shines in the role of Jackie, but her appearance in the first half is equally well done.
Overall Tracks of the Winter Bear makes an interesting counterpoint to the warming silliness of more traditional billings at this time of year. It fills a space for interesting new writing, and whilst not quite a glowing spectacle, it is nevertheless a grand evening out and much worth the trip out into the cold Scottish winter.
Images by Mihaela Bodlovic, courtesy of Traverse Theatre.