Royal Exchange, Manchester. 16th June 2017.
Powder Keg’s new work ‘Bears’ is a carefully calibrated but passionate response to climate change. Taking steps in development to minimise the production’s carbon footprint, the set is created from 100% recycled materials, the programme is only available as a download and on the way in the audience are asked to write down how they got to the venue.
The work itself is a huge progression from their debut ‘Morale is High (Since We Gave Up Hope)‘. Back In January that show was bursting with noise, anger, agitation and confusion. ‘Bears’ is an altogether different beast – it is cool, calm and measured.
Two bears (Ross McCaffrey and Hannah Mook) emerge, in fur costumes dotted with bald patches and held together in places with shabby laces. Their behaviour mimics the clichés of sitcom couples. He slightly harassed and trying to keep her happy, she taking pleasure in nice things and keeping him in line. Enacting the everyday rituals of human life they joyfully spray themselves all over with deodorant and manically brush their teeth. Satirising our obsession with consumption, they treat the products they use like objects of devotion only to discard them carelessly when finished with.
There are no words – the only sound the actors make are bearish sniffs, coughs and the odd growl. Sometimes they walk around like humans, at other times they roll, slowly belly flop forward or stretch up with noses alert.
Xavier Velastin’s sound design fills the vocal void to great effect. Bursts of loud percussive energy as the bears bang their paws on heavy plastic sheeting, give way to steady and insistent soundscapes – a low-level buzzing like a fly trapped in a glass or the insistent melting drip drip of an electronic refrain.
There is a section of piano music reminiscent of silent films to accompany a nicely observed scene of domestic silliness. The bears take great pains to set two places at a table. Her subtle cough sending him off to get the napkins to go with the carefully positioned plastic plates and cutlery. They dine on a foil wrapped Kit Kat as if it is the height of luxury.
At this point another bear (Jake Walton) intrudes. His desperate scavenging hunger is a contrast to their inane cosy routines. The new arrival is initially welcomed with shelter and shared food. When he seeks out and greedily eats a whole Kit Kat, the other two bears look on with envy and it signals a shift in tone.
Something happens to spark chaos – a growl, a fight, bright lights and smoke. Perhaps it’s the arrival of selfish avaricious humans and their polluting industries? The bears turn on each other and carry out acts of random destruction. The biggest bear sits in the middle of it all quietly whimpering and shivering as his beloved old book, a symbol of learning and civilisation, is ripped apart. The stage is trashed and littered with cans, plastic bottles, foil, train tickets and sheets of wrapping.
Mook’s female bear emerges from the chaos tightly wrapped in illuminated Christmas tree lights. At first she smiles, as the lights glow prettily, but then slowly she starts to writhe in agony carefully disentangling the flex from her fur as if pulling off barbed wire. Painful to watch, it is an affecting transformation.
As the power fails and the space is plunged in to darkness – there are some moments of desperate beauty. A single torch-light picks out the bears scratchily playing violins – balancing them on their arms and offering the sound up, pleading to a higher power. A bear throws open some shutters to let in daylight and paws desperately at the windows. No help comes and the bears, and the production, begin to exhaust themselves. There is a lingering fatalistic decline.
Powder Keg have channelled their frustrations in to something daring and thoughtful. They create a unique wholly realised world only so we can witness its destruction. The bears could be telling our story, their own or both – it’s never clear. As they barricade themselves in for a final never-ending hibernation we fear that could be our fate too.
Image: Chris Payne