A bear wanders onto the stage and looks quizzically, deliberately at the audience, waiting for something to happen. The bear dances enthusiastically to club music, front paws in the air. ‘I used to be like you, before’, declares Cally, taking off the head of her bear costume – complete with staring eye holes, brown fur and sharp teeth – and putting it over a light. The bear’s eyes flash, unnervingly, red. She used to do normal things, like wearing clothes and working in a bar, and having sex – ‘a lot of sex’ – with men and women.
Cally is going to tell us a story and we are going to listen to her. What follows is a shaggy dog story taking in adolescence, friendship, celebrity-crushes and sexual double standards. For most of the monologue, it is unclear how what Cally is telling us about her life relates to her transformation into a bear. However, the bold weirdness of the theatrical concept, as well as Jacoba Williams’ performance as Cally keep the audience engaged throughout. The combination of Eleanor Tindall’s conversational style of writing and Williams’ frank delivery make Cally a fundamentally relatable character. Williams expertly negotiates the emotional peaks and troughs of the script and matches the often absurd humour of the writing with deadpan delivery.
Director Aneesha Srinivasan introduces clowning interludes in which Cally struggles to adjust to her new ursine physicality. Cally the bear fumbles with her paws in attempting to eat cereal with a spoon. In her frustration, she tips the cornflakes over her head and they stick in her fur. At other points, like a magician, Cally the bear produces a red rose from her paw and hands it to a member of the audience. Grace Venning’s red and grey design is simple but striking, and is accented in flashes of red and blue by Martha Godfrey’s lighting design
Although Cally is now a bear, Tindall’s monologue sings with insight into what it is to inhabit a body that is gendered female. Cally describes going through puberty and realising ‘I don’t recognise the body I’m growing into’ as she struggles to navigate male sexual scrutiny. ‘It’s flattering to be wanted, isn’t it?’ she puzzles. She relates a sickening anecdote of her teenage boyfriend’s father exposing himself to her when she was at their house and her boyfriend dismissing it as a joke. Her description of the anti-climax of the first time she had sex with her boyfriend – which took place on a bunk bed with a spider man duvet – is comically devastating. It’s just ‘not as good as masturbation’ – or the week before when she’d shared a bed with her best friend Carla and touched each other but they hadn’t spoken about it.
Before I was a bear subtly and playfully conveys the complexity of female sexuality and desire. Cally’s teenage crush on Jonathan Bolt, a TV detective, becomes something more complicated when she bumps into him in real life as an adult at the pub. They start an affair, Cally collecting the miniature toiletries from the hotel rooms they stay in like trophies. She does not feel guilty about having sex with him; it gives her a feeling of power. It is refreshing to spend time with such a complex and morally ambiguous female character and to see the double standards applied to judgements of her sexual behaviour and that of Jonathan Bolt – the one with the wife and kids.
After all the build-up, the circumstances of Cally’s transformation into a bear seem a little disappointing when finally revealed. It seems like Cally’s metamorphosis is a metaphor and the metaphor might hold the key to the meaning of the play. Perhaps it is meant to suggest how women often do not feel fully in control of their bodies and how they can be made monstrous for expressing sexual desire. But the bear takes on such stature in my imagination over the course of watching Srinivasan’s production that it seems a shame to reduce it to a single metaphor, like it would also seem a shame to attempt to reduce Cally’s narrative to a single thread in summarising it. Before I was a Bear is a captivating and compelling shaggy bear story that bristles with playfulness.
Before I Was A Bear is on at the Bunker Theatre till 23rd November. More info here.