The Bear

Mayfair Theatre, 100 King Edward Street, Kensington, Dunedin

22/03/2023 - 24/03/2023

Dunedin Fringe Festival 2023

Production Details

Playwright: Anton Chekhov
Translator: Stuart Young
Adaptation and direction: Blaise Barham.
Lighting & Sound Design: Blaise Barham
Aerial Silk training and choreography: Rochelle Brophy
Aerial strap choreography: Victor Victorious
Movement pieces devised as an ensemble.

Sahara BreeZe (SBZ) Productions in conjunction with the Experimental Theatre Collective (ETC).

How free are we when it comes to gender stereotypes and notions of love and what happens when an immovable object meets another immovable object? A widow will not leave her house and move on, and neither will a creditor, come to collect on her late husband’s debt. Who will yield in this battle of the sexes?

SBZ’s take on this classic vaudeville farce mixes traditional farce, physical theatre, clowning, song, and aerial circus work. This experimental multi-discipline adaptation will be premiered as part of the Dunedin Fringe Festival 2023.

22 March 2023 at 8.30pm and 23 & 24 March 2023 at 8pm

Tickets: – $15/$10.

Popova: Becky Hodson
Luka: Brent Caldwell
Smirnov: Zac Henry
Additional character (The Master of the Straps): Victor Victorious

Lighting and Sound Operator: Tabitha Littlejohn
Stage Management: Sarah Barham
Front of House Management: Meko Ng
Rigging Management: Rochelle Brophy

Multi-discipline , Comedy , Theatre , Vaudeville ,

60 minutes

An audaciously unorthodox approach

Review by Terry MacTavish 24th Mar 2023

Strange, although the great Russian playwright Anton Chekhov somewhat dismissively described his short vaudeville farce The Bear as ‘a jest’, we are met with an intriguing stage picture that conveys a darker, much more sinister intention. Clearly director Blaise Barham has taken an audaciously unorthodox approach, blending circus, dance, music and symbolism to give a radical twist to a script written in 1888.

So, we can expect to experience something deeper and more complex than Chekhov’s really rather sweet story of a pretty widow determined to remain in seclusion, mourning her faithless husband, and a brutish, cynical landlord who is equally determined to break into that seclusion, to enforce payment of the debt he is owed. ‘A bear!” she calls him, her contempt for his boorish ways matched by his disgust for the whole female sex.

The stage is bare, the music melancholy, even ominous, and mysterious half-light reveals three slumped figures in black, while an enigmatic fourth, powerful chest bare beneath his waistcoat, is both confined by and controlling the straps of an aerial artist, a circus performer. He is the first to move, writhing and wrestling against the unyielding straps, that are the most macho of all aerial paraphernalia, difficult, even painful to work, with a curious sado-masochistic vibe.

Barham is fortunate in his cast, all extremely well-suited to their roles, and in the creatives he has mustered to support them, especially Rochelle Brophy, gifted Aerial Silks trainer and choreographer. Tabitha Littlejohn operates sound, and the moody lighting she has designed with Blaise, while Meko Ng is credited as the singing coach. The production values are rigorous and the presentation meticulous.

The role of the inscrutable Master of the Straps is taken by Victor Victorious, the alter ego of Eli Joseph, Blaise’s direction maximising his forceful stage presence. Surprisingly he starts by addressing us viciously with lines from Henry Miller’s notorious semi-autobiographical Sexus: ‘Beyond the pale there are only dressed-up cadavers. They are wound up each day like alarm clocks…’  He then proceeds to animate the three figures, who now appear to be attached to invisible strings.

Once this framework has been established, of marionettes performing under the control of the Master of the Straps, Chekhov’s one-act play unfolds much as it is written, in a nifty new translation by Stuart Young of our own University of Otago. The dialogue is consequently more natural than the usual version, with some amusingly apt slang – though I do miss the attractive army officers being described as ‘lollipops’!

But freed from conventional expectations by their white clown face-paint, the actors are boldly physical when playing Chekhov’s characters, with movement taken to extremes, repeated or stylised.  Between scenes they revert to puppets, again moving jerkily as if attached to strings, controlled by The Master. Devoted old family retainer Luka garners much laughter with an awkward Munster-like walk, white gloved hands held stiffly crooked. Less amusingly, however, all three do indeed resemble cadavers when hung back on their hooks.

Brent Caldwell brings all his quite astonishing vitality to the comic role of browbeaten Luka, adding greatly to the humour of the piece, as well as contributing some fine singing.

Playing the young widow Popova, Becky Hodson is utterly beguiling, even when she is being unreasonable and petulant, falling easily into charming, graceful attitudes that very plausibly bewitch the angry landlord.

Zac Henry is also a delight, all manic frustrated energy as blustering Smirnov, with wild eyes and wilder hair. His tirades are thankfully intelligible as well as being satisfyingly furious. Actually, all actors have good vocal delivery, a must in this largish theatre.

Together Hodson and Henry conjure up an absolute frenzy of passion, Chekhov even in light-hearted mode creating a battle of the sexes that is positively Shakespearean. Smirnov’s rage that these simpering, pretentious ‘poetical creatures’ get away with illogical behaviour is akin to Hamlet’s rant to Ophelia, while Popova challenges him like a spitfire Katherine the Shrew. 

They argue with increasing fervour (and growing attraction!) over everything from female emancipation to the nature of true equality of the sexes. The great debate, though, centres on whether man or woman is more faithful in love, which is perhaps more reminiscent of Jane Austen’s Persuasion.

At certain key moments, the narrative is suspended, and the characters reveal their innermost feelings in song, to the music of Yann Tiersen and Jarvis Cocker, while the lighting transforms the cyclorama to an eerie purple.

As we reach the climax of the play, with Popova and Smirnov passionately preparing to duel, naturalism is abandoned and red silks sweep down, gently enveloping the entranced couple. Their aerial dance on the silks is lyrical and mesmerising, expressing sexual tension but also tenderness, and the ending is a moment of pure poetry. The sheer languid beauty of Brophy’s choreography seems to redeem the ugliness of the opening scene and Miller’s frightening words. Fantastical.

The comfortable faded glamour of the old Mayfair Theatre seems well suited to this imaginative presentation, and I find myself wondering if the performers, rather than marionettes (or gruesome cadavers), might be ghosts of actors from a long-ago production right here of The Bear, invoked by the spirit of the theatre.

Or we could even read a political message into the play – the boorish attacking Russian bear can be tamed by love. After all, though Chekhov studied in Moscow and wrote in Russian, he was born not far from ill-fated Mariupol, and described himself in a census as Ukrainian. Won over by love…Well, we live in hope. 

Plenty to ponder then, in this quirky and genre-bending work. We are fortunate that SBZ Productions, though a touring company, has made Dunedin its base, and The Bear is only one of four very varied productions it is mounting at the Fringe. Blaise Barham demonstrates an inspiring zeal to explore, to experiment, to enthuse other artists and acknowledge the greats of the past, and simply to play with theatre.


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