Before I Was A Bear – Soho Theatre Upstairs

Eleanor Tindall’s brilliant dark fable about obsession and desire weaves a subtly profound tale of 21st century (in)justice and the ethics of revenge

Jacoba Williams in Before I Was A Bear – images from the 2019 production at The Bunker Theatre

The infamous bear in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale has been interpreted as emblematic of the play’s tragicomedy – murdering one of the play’s most uncomplicatedly good characters (Antigonus) and imperilling the life of a baby, despite being a stage effect with inevitable bathos. Even with a real bear (though there is no evidence one was ever used on the Elizabethan stage, despite the popularity of bearbaiting elsewhere), the sheer unpredictability of placing real animals on stage would be as destabilising as the awkward comedy of person donning a bear costume and shambling after Antigonus in pursuit. Perhaps the stage is not best suited to such visceral, immediate horror.

Yet Eleanor Tindall’s brilliant contemporary monologue Before I Was A Bear does place a bear on stage, drawing on a similar tangle of tones in a hilarious, melancholy story delivered entirely by one woman in a bear costume. Jacoba Williams bursts onto the stage, clad head to toe in bear attire, dancing energetically. The performance’s physicality is suffused not only with dance influences but clowning too. Interludes show her interacting with the world as a bear, adjusting to its difference, challenging physicality. Yet the initial comedy – from Grace Venning’s pantomime-like – steadily turns to frustration and unhappiness as the limits of bear-hood are exposed. Williams marvellously powers the play’s rich physicality, offering a wonderfully dynamic performance which consistently grips and moves us.

Williams plays Cally – named as a deliberate echo of the mythical Callisto, whose story Before I Was A Bear freely adapts. In the myth, Zeus disguises himself as the goddess Artemis in order to seduce the nymph Callisto. The affair is discovery when Callisto falls pregnant, and Zeus’s wife Hera transforms her into a bear in revenge. Tindall utilises the overall shape, updating the myth into a contemporary story of desire and (in)justice.

Zeus here is replaced with Jonathan Bolt, an actor whose meteoric rise takes him from TV detective to film star during the sweep of the play’s narrative, who Cally meets in pub one evening – about a decade on from the height of an all-consuming crush on him. Their conversation soon transforms into a night of passion under a railway bridge, which progresses into an ongoing affair – Cally collecting the miniature toiletries from each hotel they stay in. The affair breaks Cally’s relationship with her best friend and former casual lover Carla, who asks how she could do it knowing that Bolt is married with children. Eventually the story breaks in the press: ‘Love Rat Actor JONATHAN BOLT Linked To At Least Ten WOMEN’. Bolt’s wife, Jasmine, then calmly arrives on Cally’s doorstep and – exactly as in the myth – transforms her into a literal bear. As Tindall writes in the play’s acknowledgments, ‘Thank you to Ovid for the story; sorry that I pulled it apart but that’s what stories are for.’

The play navigates the ethical challenges of a modern-day Callisto from her unique perspective, considering the implications of power. Yet unlike Callisto’s story, which can easily be read as a simple case of double-victimhood, Cally herself feels deeply compromised by her own choices, at least subconsciously. She spends much of the monologue seeking and soliciting our complicity. Cally is constantly appealing to us to share her perspective, winning us over with relatable comedy or direct entreaties to the inevitability of her actions. It’s what any of us would have done, or so we are told. Yet this is also an gesture towards normativity, a logic of rationalisation that is so fundamental to Cally that it even mirrors her understanding of her sexuality. On losing her virginity, Cally says that ‘It’s my first time unless you count a month earlier’. Sex with Carla does not quite count in her mind; the cultural and personal standard is that only heterosexual sex matters.

The show is peppered with bravura comic interludes whose comedy does not so much mask but actually expresses an underlying melancholy. Early in the show, Cally lists all of the London tube lines she has cried on (‘basically every line apart from the Waterloo and City line because who actually uses that’). Foremost among the confessional comedy is the excruciating tale of losing her (heterosexual) virginity to her first boyfriend, Lewis, on his Spiderman bedsheets, which Tindall then spins out into a broader survey of Cally’s sex-life. Aneesha Srinivasan brilliantly choreographs this sequence, using the small, red-trimmed blocks from Grace Venning’s set design to build three small steps. Sex with incompetent men becomes a Sisyphean ascent, in which Cally steps up onto a block and then back down again, over and over.

Cally’s subjectivity is what makes Before I Was A Bear so compelling, yet this conscious one-sidedness has deliberate moral limits. Cally admits to us that she has thought about Jonathan Bolt’s wife – despite lying about that fact to Carla – but she has never considered the potential effect of the affair on his children.

Jacoba Williams in Before I Was A Bear

Before I Was a Bear is a rich and multifaceted drama – overtly a story of friendship, obsession, desire and moral uncertainty, while subtly and profoundly exploring sources of injustice in contemporary society. It presents a world (essentially our own, with the Rio Olympics, Channel 4 drama Sugar Rush, and James Bond as touchstones) in which the apparatus of punishment and law enforcement are strong, while justice itself is wanting. Jonathan Bolt’s stardom is redolent of our cop-drenched culture – the ‘maverick’ investigative anti-hero rendered iconic, and subsequently an ideal fantasy. He appears in a darkly addictive Channel 4 drama, which Tindall parodies to eviscerate derivative crime shows with sublime force. It was ‘the kind of show that starts with a dead woman being found in a skip, or bound and gagged in a car boot, or submerged in a lake, or buried under the floorboards by her husband […]’. It is a genre sustained by violence against women – and the fantasy of justice achieved through a male detective’s apparent brilliance in solving the case and catching the perpetrator. In Cally’s world, Bolt is heavily tipped as the next James Bond – another hero whose narratives are powered by litanies of disposable women.

Yet Tindall’s drama searches deeper than the common critique that culture lionises problematic characters and characteristics; these figures have not only been conferred status, but an erotic power too – an ambiguous mix of primal urge and socialised proclivities. To teenage Cally’s delight, the cop show contains vast amounts of sex – often not ‘relevant’ or ‘necessary’ to the plot. Where the gratuity stretches into troubling is when it takes advantage and misuses power, such as in ‘We-shouldn’t-do-this-because-you’re-the-victim’s-sister-but-we-will-anyway sex’. Tindall’s shards of wit draw blood with their perceptive commentary.

Cally ends up on trial in many different ways. She is branded ‘The Worst Kind of Woman’ – a home-wrecking seducer allegedly hell-bent on snuffing out Bolt’s illustrious profile. ‘Oh look’, one internet commenter writes, ‘another whore ruining a talented man’s career. Classic’.

Many shows have rightly identified the misogynistic bind that demands women are simultaneously sexually available and chaste (a modern variation on Freud’s Madonna-whore complex), but few have expressed it as deftly, succinctly, yet complexly as this. The sudden burst of disdain towards Cally is unsurprising – especially in 2022, as MeToo entreaties towards female sympathy (encapsulated in slogans such as ‘Believe Women’) lose traction. Though Tindall updates Callisto’s rape into consensual and enjoyable sex, the play’s implicit consideration of power (and abuse of) is partly built from this hinterland. However, Cally’s sheer humanity in the play creates a sharp sense of whiplash; as we pity her treatment by the sensational press, a feeding frenzy has begun online that feels unspeakably cruel and unwarranted.

The play presents trial by media and then trial by social media in quick succession. Tindall treats the online and ‘real’ worlds with a very porous relationship. The internet is not a space that can be simply switched off – especially not when Cally is named, shamed and doxed by old school acquaintances and hounded by strangers online and off. Spaces of discussion and debate seem more like torture devices, methods of punishment, blame and shame – with no room for justice.

Yet the show is structured around a final revelation of punishment and injustice which finally explains Cally’s bear-hood – which has gone unremarked upon in the monologue, manifesting in the costume and cleverly directed interludes in which Cally tries to eat a bag of crisps and stares longingly at a tupperware of pasta. There is more we do not know about Jasmine Bolt’s ambiguous decision to unleash a very literal and physical punishment of metamorphosis upon Cally than we actually do. Cally wonders if the other women received the same treatment – or just her. Jasmine’s powers are just accepted; they are simply inexplicable. Yet Cally’s transformation is clearly a misdirected and lopsided punishment; she loses her human form while Bolt himself goes pretty much unscathed, announced as the new James Bond with a sense of inevitability. The update exposes the glaring double standard of the myth but also comments on the present reality; male reputations remain unsullied while women suffer.

The implicit question then is about what Cally should have done differently. By her account, she only did what was natural. By Carla’s, she should never have texted him back. Yet the play charts a fascinatingly nuanced course through various ethical imperatives: that of the individualist pursuit female pleasure, a notional duty to society, a duty to protect children. Jonathan Bolt had long been her fantasy, and probably the best sex she has ever had. Some feminists argue that female desire and pleasure are good ends in themselves – that a woman having a personally satisfying sex life, however she chooses, is innately feminist. Before I Was A Bear seems to feel the pull of this point of view, without fully subscribing to it. Sex with Bolt is joyous. Cally even throws confetti in the air to announce: ‘That night I fucked Jonathan Bolt’. It garners a round of applause. Yet in Cally driving away Carla, the play contrasts the excitement with a reasoned meditation on the cost of her choices.

At the very end, Carla returns, bringing ‘industrial-sized bottles of soap and thick cuts of meat’ to tend to the flea-ridden, hungry bear that Cally has become. It offers the closest glimpse of tenderness and care in a play filled with cruelty, something restorative and humanising after Cally’s strange and extraordinary punishment.

Perhaps the play’s central theme is the reduction of female identity to the solely or primarily bodily. Cally has experienced a distorted, complicated relationship with her body; Tindall’s poetic gifts are in evidence as Cally recalls how puberty hits ‘like a big fucking cricket bat covered in spikes and doused in oestrogen’. Yet with it she is perceived differently by men, most alarmingly on a visit to Lewis’s house, during which her boyfriend’s father deliberately exposes himself to her as he leaves the bathroom. Cally feels as if the cause is located within herself, rather than the grossly entitled and exploitative action of a much older man. Yet the play’s ending evokes this bodily discomfort quite literally. Cally is now perceived as a physically threat, and the police are called in as she roams London – leaping in the Thames to escape.

However, the metamorphosis into a bear cannot be reduced into a simple metaphor. It variously evokes Cally’s depression, alienation from her body, cruel and disproportionate punishments visited upon women (though it is far from limited to these things). Before I Was A Bear is a story that cannot be pinned down; it invites us to keep pulling it apart. After all, that’s what stories are for.

Before I Was A Bear

Written by Eleanor Tindall, Directed by Aneesha Srinivasan, Set and Costume Design by Grace Venning, Lighting Design by Martha Godfrey, Starring Jacoba Williams
Production Photographs by Tara Rooney (of the 2019 production at The Bunker Theatre)
Reviewed 7th June 2022

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s