Bears: Peculiar and Non-Preachy, but Purposeless

By Vanessa Jo Di Natale

Multi-disciplinary performance company and winner of the Hodgkiss Award, Powder Keg, had their first showing of Bears in June 2017 at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Studio.

Bears is as ambitious as it is opaque. The show follows three polar bears (Jake Walton, Hannah Mook and Ross McCaffrey) who perform the daily tasks of humans, mostly in a bear-like manner, yet sometimes like how humans would. Without one word of dialogue, actors playing bears lay a tablecloth, put on deodorant, and eat foods wrapped in plastic. Unlike most other climate change art out there, Bears resembles a physical comedy with a dystopian tilt.

Powder Keg doesn’t preach, or try to educate the audience. Bears successfully veers well away from the sort of self-righteous moralising common in other climate change art, which is refreshing. Bears takes a real world threat that’s often hyper-politicised and ideologically charged and presents us with an absurd, non-naturalistic piece about three bears and their consumption. Yet while Powder Keg offers a unique take, Bears lacks any clear narrative, which makes it come across as a devised piece in need of further exposition.

That is not to say there aren’t moments of acuity. When the bears use and discard deodorant canisters, plastic plates, cutlery and Kit Kat wrappers – initially taking pride in their ownership and ability to use these objects, to only a split second later throw them away – Bears successfully captures our culture of careless consumerism and excess waste, all without a single word being uttered. While still an absurd scene, the takeaway message is clear, and snickers of recognition issue from the audience.

However, from this scene onwards the persistent rummaging and frenzied movements of the three bears are hard to make sense of. The chaotic mix of characters shifting from human-like behaviours and expressions to more bear-like ones, the clinking and clashing of pieces of plastic rubbish, the grunts of bears and sudden incomprehensible outbursts of movement becomes sensorily fatiguing, without a clear reason for what or why we should be absorbing the action.

Repetitive movements highlight the bears’ desperation. Signs of their crazed scrummaging for Kit Kat wrappers and Coke cans are scattered all over the set. Their distress when they’re without a supply of Kit Kats and Coca Cola, and their tranquility when they obtain them highlights our dependency on two of the world’s largest and unethical multinational food and drink processing conglomerates – Nestle and Coca Cola. These companies supply us and nourish us, but are also liable for environmental damage across the globe.

The sound design is not over-bearing (pun-intended) and allows the grunts, growls and sniffs of the bears to resonate. The set design resembles a makeshift shed made up of junk parts in the middle of the Antarctic, and while the costumes do not immediately look bear-like, it eventually dawns on you that the tattered, patchy fur sewn together by pieces of string is supposed to resemble a malnourished polar bear.

Images of lone, emaciated bears floating on ice caps form a major part of climate change imagery, and familiar anxieties are conjured up throughout this play. The bears playing violin towards the end is stirring and enigmatic, almost like a lullaby for the climate disaster we are gradually inching closer to.

Bears’ goal to experiment with the exploration of climate change through art is impressive but falls short in its execution, veering too far in the direction of absurdity. The production’s lack of a clear narrative risks disengaging the audience. However, Bears remains worthy of our attention for the ideas it raises about the place art holds when faced with environmental concerns.

Powder Keg’s production of Bears can be watched here.

Production photos source: Royal Exchange Theatre