A Traverse play about a polar bear with bite

Playwrights Stephen Greenhorn and Rona Munro flank artistic director Orla O'Loughlin as they prepare Tracks of the Winter Bear
Playwrights Stephen Greenhorn and Rona Munro flank artistic director Orla O'Loughlin as they prepare Tracks of the Winter Bear
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THE Traverse’s Christmas show – a double bill by Rona Munro and Stephen Greenhorn – comes complete with snow, a polar bear, a little magic realism and an all-female cast, writes Susan Mansfield

Are polar bears left-handed? As questions go, it’s not high on the list one might expect to be asked in a rehearsal room, but that’s exactly what I end up discussing with two of the actresses currently working on the Traverse winter show, Tracks of the Winter Bear. One wall of the rehearsal space is given over to polar bear facts and photographs.

The bear of the title in this double-bill of plays by Stephen Greenhorn and Rona Munro is not a metaphor. In one of the two at least, it – she – is extremely real. In Munro’s play, her first for a Scottish theatre since The James Plays, a disillusioned employee at a winter wildlife park meets a bear, and what the bear tells her changes everything.

“We use polar bears as cuddly, cute, child-friendly symbols of snow and winter,” says Munro. “In fact they’re one of the most dangerous animals on the planet and one of the few that still manage to eat people in significant numbers every year. They are a throwback to a time when we were utterly vulnerable to nature, but they’re also extremely beautiful. I wanted to write something that captured both the excitement and the danger of the season and the shortest days.”

Tracks of the Winter Bear is something of a coup for Traverse artistic director Orla O’Loughlin and associate director Zinnie Harris, who have commissioned new works from two of Scotland’s most acclaimed playwrights. Each play stands alone, but the two will be performed together, and are linked by themes and connecting threads. Both weave elements of magic realism into dramas of love, loss and social isolation.

“Themes of loss and remembrance come up for a lot of people at this time of year,” says O’Loughlin, who directs Munro’s play. “It’s not all about tinsel, and certainly the older you get, the more weight the season can bring to bear. We’re not seeking to depress people, and there is a lot humour in both pieces, but I don’t think they shy away from the more complicated aspects of human experience.”

Munro, whose previous work includes hard-hitting dramas such as Iron and the Ken Loach film Ladybird, Ladybird, says she thoroughly enjoyed the chance to write what O’Loughlin has described as “a fairy tale for adults”. Munro says: “I do love breaking the bounds of naturalism. It’s a very easy thing to do, but a very hard thing to do well, and I sincerely hope I’ve pulled it off. The performers are doing an amazing job of convincing me of our strange reality.”

Greenhorn, best known as the writer of Passing Places and Sunshine on Leith, who has since been writing for television (including Doctor Who and the drama series Marchlands) also welcomed the chance to be non-naturalistic, while grounding his story of a doomed love affair in contemporary Edinburgh. “There’s a joy about writing a play which is set in Edinburgh at Christmas that’s going to be watched by an Edinburgh audience at Christmas time. Part of the action feels like its happening now, 400m from the theatre. Its like what happened when we brought Sunshine on Leith to the Festival Theatre and you could see the audience recognising every pub and street corner.”

O’Loughlin says that she felt the time had come to “shake up” what the Traverse offered at Christmas, which has struggled at times to hit the right note with audiences expecting another pantomime or family show. Previous winter shows, such as Jo Clifford’s The Tree of Knowledge, Peepolykus’ The Arthur Conan Doyle Appreciation Society and Iain Finlay Macleod’s The Devil Masters, have tried to strike a tricky balance between seriousness and humour, ideas and spectacle.

This year, however, the theatre may have struck the jackpot, particularly in pairing Tracks of the Winter Bear with daytime performances of Andy Manley’s hit show White, for younger children. Winter Bear will see the space in Traverse 1 transformed by Kai Fischer’s magical wintry set, and both plays will be underscored by a soundtrack by award-winning composer David 
Paul Jones.

However, Greenhorn says that writing a Christmas show for grown-ups brought its own challenges. “The challenge was about looking at things which could be quite dark and bleak, but making them work tonally for an audience at Christmas. We were looking at models like It’s A Wonderful Life and A Christmas Carol, both of which are quite scathing and dark in certain places, but there is a sense of catharsis and redemption at the end.

“We talked about that sense of magicalness at Christmas, and what that gives you, the way that when snow falls your street can go from looking grubby and grimy and familiar to looking spectacular. We took that sense of transformation and used it to free up elements of the storytelling. So there are polar bears and snow, things you might associate with a traditional Christmas show, but slightly subverted.”

Zinnie Harris, who directs Greenhorn’s play, says it’s about balancing expectations. “I think you can take the audience to quite dark places, but you’ve also got to be aware that the last performance is on Christmas Eve, there’s a bit of festivity around, there is mulled wine and shortbread in the bar. The show needs to be fascinating, engaging, emotionally wrought, but also a delight and a treat. I felt that Rona and Stephen would answer both those things.”

Both playwrights are delighted to be invited to return to the Scottish stage. Munro has recently completed commissions for Birmingham Rep and Manchester Royal Exchange, as well as a new television series, and has been spending “a few scant days” in rehearsals for the National Theatre of Scotland’s revival of The James Plays, which will tour in the New Year. “I’m so happy they’re coming back to Scotland, I can’t begin to express it,” she says. “It’s really exciting to see them coming to life again”.

Greenhorn, who has recently moved back to Edinburgh from London, hasn’t written for the Scottish stage since the original version of Sunshine on Leith was performed at Dundee Rep in 2007, and says he’s thrilled to be back in the Scottish theatre community. He’s also delighted to be working with Munro, with whom he collaborated as a co-writer on 7:84’s acclaimed production, Gilt, in 2003, which Harris directed.

On Winter Bear, both writers took the decision early on to work with an all-female ensemble. Following the strong all-female production of Stef Smith’s Swallow at the Traverse during the Fringe, it’s beginning to look like like a pattern, but O’Loughlin is keen to state that this time, the decision was coincidental.

“It happened entirely organically, it came from the writers, though we can’t pretend that we’re not absolutely delighted. Following Swallow, it feels like another powerful manifestation of our commitment to putting women’s experience on the stage – and how joyful that one of those plays has been written by a man.”

Meanwhile, actress Karen Bartke, one of the five-strong ensemble, says: “It’s exciting to see five really well-written female characters. Everywhere you look there is a complex, interesting female role. It’s amazing to see actresses I’ve admired for ages, like Deborah Arnott and Kathryn Howden (the respective leads in the two plays), on stage performing those roles.”

O’Loughlin says she hopes the weather will oblige by helping us all get in the mood for a little winter magic. “I’m hoping it’s blowing a blizzard when people come,” she says, smiling. “Snow helps to take us into that kind of dreamscape.”

• Tracks of the Winter Bear is at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, 9-24 December, www.traverse.co.uk