“Jacoba Williams is a powerhouse. She has an infectious energy, a warmth and an honesty and a bluntness that it is impossible not to connect with”
Before I Was A Bear is a surprising, funny, moving piece of brilliance on stage. A dancing bear opens the play, by which I mean Jacoba Williams, our performer, in a head to toe bear costume. She pulls the head off, and places it over a red light that shines through the bears eye sockets. This is just one example of Martha Godfrey’s fantastic lighting choices that constantly reinvent the space the play is taking place in.
“I’m Cally. And I used to be like you,” Williams says. She is talking, of course, about the time before she was a bear.
Eleanor Tindall’s play takes us on an unpredictable and captivating journey that delves into friendship, the awakening and navigation of sexuality, how older men look at young women, bad sex, good sex, straight sex, queer sex and celebrity worship to name but a few of the stops on the way. Based on the Greek myth of Callisto, Tindall uses a decidedly contemporary voice to talk about gender inequality, slut shaming and isolation.
Jacoba Williams is a powerhouse. She has an infectious energy, a warmth and an honesty and a bluntness that it is impossible not to connect with. Her lively direct address to the audience is splintered by moments of bear – scratching, trying and failing to open a packet of crisps, pain. These moments are shaped by different lighting combinations which silhouette and shadow and illuminate Williams alternately. The set, designed by Grace Venning, is minimal, two painted blocks with red undersides that echo the bear heads red eyes. The production is beautifully crafted as a whole, credit to the skilled and cohesive direction of Aneesha Srinivasan whose handling of pace is spot on.
‘Before I Was A Bear’ is a bold, comic, dark piece that is showcased in a flawless production brimming with talent.
“Structurally, the show was rather like an album, comprised of different tracks, but, aside from the closing piece, they all sounded pretty much the same”
Grey is an intensely personal show. Written by Koko Brown, who is also one of the two performers, it is an autobiographical account of her own struggles with depression. It is honest, and it is real, and Koko herself radiates warmth, strength, fragility and creativity. To sit in the audience with a notebook and pen felt intrusive, as if I was being asked to critique her pain. So, to be clear: it is the artistic shaping of that pain that is being written about here. Nothing can take away from the truth and validity of Koko Brown’s lived experience.
The show has a simple format. Koko shares the stage with another performer, Sapphire Joy, who interprets – through a mixture of sign language and signifying gesture – what she is saying. Or at least, sometimes that’s what she does. Sapphire busts out of her interpreter role on occasion, to directly challenge or confront Koko’s narrative, though still remaining in the realm of sign and gesture. Sapphire also signs the music. Koko mixes live beats throughout, using her loop station, and frequently sings over the top, and one of the real pleasures of this piece was watching Sapphire Joy physically embody those sounds. Fantastic work, and another instance in which Shelley Maxwell’s superb movement direction shines.
The integration of a signing performer into the work felt exciting, and provided some welcome moments of theatre, especially when the two women interacted, although there were also a few sections of unspoken dialogue which were unclear to the audience, and which, judging by the animation of the performers, it seemed a shame to be missing out on. There was also a terrific section towards the end of the show in which the poetry rose up out of the narrative and Koko then opened her voice into a great howl of pain, triumph and pure being. Unfortunately, these moments were little and late.
Making a perfomance piece about depression is always going to be problematic, as it is a condition of repetitive stasis, which is inherently undramatic; this conundrum wasn’t resolved here, and the show lacked pace and tonal variety. The enforced gaiety which is clearly exhausting for the sufferer, was equally exhausting for the audience, and went on for far too long. Also, the theatrical elements in the staging – giant hanging origami birds, for example – seemed completely arbitrary. Structurally, the show was rather like an album, comprised of different tracks, but, aside from the closing piece, they all sounded pretty much the same.