Wojtek the Bear bound for success at Fringe 2012
How the Polish/Syrian/Persian bear became an international phenomenon
This article is from 2012.
Laura Ennor discovers how the real-life tale of a Persian bear who fought in World War II and lived out his days in Edinburgh Zoo has become an international phenomenon
For all that the theatre is a showcase for the power of the imagination, sometimes real life gifts you a story that’s better than anything anyone could make up. The life of Wojtek the soldier bear is one such case – and that’s what makes it all the more surprising that, after a documentary, books, countless websites and even a special brew from the Beartown Beer Company have honoured him, Edinburgh’s Theatre Objektiv are only now staging his story for the first time.
Anyone who visited Edinburgh Zoo in the 1950s or early 60s, or grew up in a Polish community will almost certainly know Wojtek already. For those that don’t: in Persia in 1942, a boy sold an orphaned bear cub to some soldiers from the Second Polish Corps. One, Piotr Prendys, took particular care of him, earning him the nickname ‘Mama Bear’ among his comrades. Wojtek became a fully signed up member of the Polish army, travelling around Europe with his unit, carrying shells at the Battle of Monte Cassino and becoming a mascot for soldiers who had little else left to love. When the war ended the unit was sent to a re-settlement camp in Berwickshire, and from there, when his ‘mother’ had to move to London to find work, Wojtek was taken to Edinburgh Zoo to live out his days.
There, the young son of a Polish immigrant attended the school next door to the Zoo and knew about the bear. Skip forward around 50 years and Raymond Raszkowski Ross is a writer with his own theatre company, who has written a play about the relationship between the bear and Prendys which, after a short Edinburgh run in June, is already garnering international attention. ‘What’s become really fascinating,’ he says, ‘is that we opened a Facebook page for the show and we linked to this Wojtek site in Krakow, and now we get people from all over the world … people are posting up pictures of Wojtek from when their dad took them to the Zoo in the 50s. It’s kind of taking off. He was much more important and interesting than the pandas, you know?’
While harsh economic necessity dictated that in real life Wojtek and Piotr Prendys never met again, the play imagines they do, and together they look back over this remarkable story, seeking forgiveness for the loneliness of their later years. From the beginning Ross know that there would be no bear costume, no mask or claws: instead actors James Sutherland and John McColl appear plainly dressed on a simple set, with only their words and actions – and the plaintive fiddle sounds of musician Sue Muir – to evoke a moving journey across countries and decades.
Certainly a beer drinking, ceilidh-dancing bear who likes to wrestle his soldier comrades has comic potential, but there’s more depth to the story than that – through his life and that of Prendys, Theatre Objektiv tells the story of Poland’s World War II and the Free Polish Forces afterwards. ‘He was a very comic character,’ says Ross, ‘but there was something uncanny about him. I think because in the Northern Hemisphere we never had apes … there’s a lot of mythology around the bear because it’s the animal that most closely resembles the human in form … The bear was seen as somewhere between man and god, and that comes into effect in the play – Wojtek’s not just this funny cuddly wee thing, he’s closer to nature than man can be, and he doesn’t understand why they make war, for example, although he takes part in it.’ It’s this ultimate outsider perspective – that of an animal – that should for an affecting take on human history, intertwined with a story of rare closeness between one man and one beast.
Wojtek the Bear, Hill Street Theatre, 226 6522, 4–26 Aug (not 14), 4.30pm, £11–£12 (£9–£10). Previews 2 & 3 Aug, £5.