Edinburgh Fringe, Hill Street Theatre, Homosexuality, James Sutherland, John McColl, Poland, Polish Immigration, Raymond Raszkowski Ross, Sue Muir, Theatre Objektiv, Theatre Review, Wojtek the Bear, WW2
Off to the New Town and the Hill Street Theatre for the afternoon. This little theatre is simply adorable, but it never strikes me as being particularly professional. The staff always look too overexcited to be real theatre staff. However venerable the Hill Street Theatre may be, one would not be surprised if they were forced to admit that it was just somebody’s house and that the staff were all part of the same family. Come to think of it, the audiences never look completely serious either. It is as if we are in the provinces and turning out for a play is a grand occasion.
Wojtek the bear is the sort of subject that you would find your local history society inviting an expert to lecture on. In the thick of WW2, the 22nd Artillery Supply Company of the Polish II Corps had adopted this Syrian dancing bear as an informal mascot. He initially provided light entertainment – performing various antics for the troops – but by the time that the 22nd Artillery were fighting in Italy, Wojtek was actually undertaking operational duties. After the war, he was housed in Edinburgh zoo.
Raymond Raszkowski Ross’ play “Wojtek the Bear” approaches this story from two different angles, both of which are inescapably contradictory. Lance Corporal Piotr Prendys (John McColl) and the bear himself (James Sutherland) – who in this story has sentient awareness and the power of speech – together relate the fortunes of the exiled Poles who had both fought alongside the Allies and helped to rebuild Britain after the war. We are reminded of Katyn, the endurance of underground Catholicism, and the Allies’ debt to their Polish friends. A crone tickles the sounds of WW2 out of her violin in eerie folk melodies. There is obviously money – and more particularly funding – in airing this cultural nationalism once again. The play dutifully cites a long list of “Friends and Patrons.”
Yet the bear was an Arab and the actors – however lustily they sing their Polish songs – remain hopelessly Scottish. Methinks they doth protest their Polishness too much. More amusingly – and one should phrase this as delicately as possible – Polish nationalism, with its deep roots in the Catholic faith, is often found at the more traditional end of morality. And this bear is, as I have heard one Polish nationalist comment rather stiffly, “the gayest thing I have ever seen.”
“Gay” is perhaps not the whole picture. In a calculated physical intimacy, McColl and Sutherland cuddle and fondle one another, they coo baby language in each other’s ears, and on one occasion they take part in a Highland fling which ends with the bear making grabs at his chum’s arse. They often grapple like children, wrapped up in imbecilic devotion. They slobber in each other’s faces – their juices run together under the heat of the stage lights. Wojtek calls Piotr his “momma,” which adds to the general sense of identity meltdown. Sutherland is having the time of his life as the massively camp bear, but there is something deeper going on here.
Ross has appropriated Wojtek’s story to provide a metaphor for the repression of homosexual desire. To dabble in jargon, Wojtek is a “bear” in both senses of the word. In real life, a lonely solider could never establish an emotionally rewarding relationship with a bear, because a bear is a mindless mechanical creature. Yet whatever sexual desire or innocent camaraderie Piotr derives from his days in the army will act only as a substitute for the love of his wife, who is being held captive in Soviet Russia. After the war, Piotr will be reunited with his wife, and whatever Wojtek stands ultimately as a symbol for will be no longer appropriate. Unable to confide in his priest – who could hardly understand – Piotr does the responsible thing and consigns the bear to his past.
Homosexual desire and Polish patriotism together make as much sense as a talking bear. Let’s hope that any Polish theatregoers are enlightened or repressed enough to avoid being plunged into existential crisis.