BWW Review: I WILL STILL BE WHOLE (WHEN YOU RIP ME IN HALF)/BEFORE I WAS A BEAR, The Bunker
Though the Bunker will be closing early 2020, it has rightly garnered a reputation for providing a platform for new voices. As such, i will still be whole (when you rip me in half) and Before I Was A Bear are the respective debut plays of Ava Wong Davies and Eleanor Tindall, and they proclaim their authors as confident new voices.
Ava Wong Davies is already a respected writer and critic. Her reviews for Exeunt themselves can read like plays - see her brilliant piece on The Hunt at the Almeida - and it's great to see her dramatic work here given an outlet.
i will still be whole (when you rip me in half) tracks the separate lives of estranged mother and daughter Joy (Tuyen Do) and EJ (Aoife Hinds). The former talks of her early life in the UK, her pregnancy and the reason why she left her family, whilst the latter's narrative is set across a single, lonely evening that begins in a nightclub and ends in a blisteringly hot bath.
Davies' writing has an exactness that moves between pain and comedy. "I didn't glow in pregnancy, I sallowed," Joy observes. The play revels in slight touches: when the two meet in the final scene, Joy's revelation that "I think of you a reasonable amount" is devastating.
Do and Hinds are both brilliant, though Helen Morley's direction has some unsure moments. Also distracting was Jord Rice's intermittent sound design that actually made it difficult at points to hear the actors. Ben Kulvichit's lighting, however, fills the stage with a golden warmth, even if the characters don't find such a harmonious closure. In fact, with its gentle power, the play could be longer.
Supposedly a modern retelling of an Ovidian myth of metamorphosis, Eleanor Tindall's Before I Was a Bear meanwhile has Cally (Jacoba Williams) tell the audience of the events leading to her own grisly change. Talking through her childhood, sexual encounters with men and women, friends and TV celebrities, Cally's coming of age is told with turns that are one minute funny and the next cruelly true.
More broadly, Tindall's play comments on shame and sexuality. It's a monologue that is hugely promising at points, with striking lines and imagery interwoven throughout. The jokes, imbued with a heightened mundanity so common to teenagers discovering the world, land throughout. Explaining her blossoming relationship with new friend Carla, Cally states: "We get those necklaces that spell out BEST FRIENDS but split in two, so I have 'BE' and 'FRI' and she has 'ST' and 'ENDS'."
Director Aneesha Srinivasan has drawn a strong performance from Williams. There's a careful confidence throughout the show that cracks as the cause of the metamorphosis is revealed. Obviously, the bear is a metaphor for depression and the disruptive power of social media, but the faux-dedication given to the concept of the bear itself is what both makes and breaks this show. Martha Godfrey's lighting cleverly illuminates the mask of the bear costume Williams wears.
On the one hand, the juxtaposition of Williams' dancing bear with the intense narrative and vivid insistence that "I'm a fucking bear" gives the show a surreal energy. On the other, the sequences where Cally physically becomes a bear are awkward, breaking the show's pace and power.
Both shows are thoroughly enjoyable to watch and are well acted. Their next work might not be at the Bunker, but I look forward to seeing whatever Davies and Tindall have in store.
Photograph credit: Tara Rooney.