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Wojtek the bear: A Warrior who Captures Hearts

Wojtek – a bear who went to war – is a well known figure to all Scotland-based Poles. Thanks to a phenomenal theatrical piece, “Wojtek: The Happy Warrior,” his story gets a new life.

Wojtek was a Syrian brown bear cub enlisted into the Polish Army Corp during WW2. Having fought along side them in Monte Cassino, Wojtek was relocated to Scotland after the war. This honored “soldier” died in Ediburgh Zoo in 1963. In 2015 a new theatrical piece by Glenn Tillin and Kitty Meyers, founders of The Quarter Too Ensemble, retells his story to audiences of all nationalities and ages.

The idea to bring Wojtek’s story back to life was conceived by Kitty after she read an article about him in 2009. Intrigued, she discussed the possibility of creating a play about Wojtek with Glenn, her husband. It wasn’t until 2015, however, that an opportunity to stage the play arose. Glenn, a teacher at Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance in London, decided to run a piece on Wojtek as a development project for his students.

Besides telling the tale of Wojtek, it also skilfully presents Polish history to foreign audiences and is able to connect three generations of a family who were affected by the war. “We wanted to tell the story in a way that not only stayed true to the historical facts but also connected the audience emotionally to the chaos and brutality of war,” Kitty explains. “We felt that Wojtek’s vulnerability helped to highlight the overarching fragility of the Polish people during this moment in history.”

Thanks to a clever use of props, the piece presents historical facts in an approachable way. The live music and visually stunning slow motion scenes steal audience’s hearts. But perhaps most impressive part of the performance is the use of Polish. The cast sing and occasionally exclaim a few words in Polish.

How did an all-English-speaking ensemble train for this part of the play? The mystery is revealed by Kitty. “We had a cast member who came from a Polish family. During the development process of the play she discovered that her uncle had been a survivor of Monte Cassino and had known Wojtek! So she helped us with sounding out the words, which we wrote on large sheets of paper so we could all see them. And then we practised daily.”

Assistance from native speakers was much needed, even though Kitty and Glenn had actually spent some time in Poland, where they met. They learned a few Polish words when they both trained at the Teatr Pieśń Kozła (Song of the Goat Theatre) in Wrocław. The duo remembers their time in Poland as demanding but artistically fulfilling. “Training with the Goats in Poland really opened my eyes to the possibilities of developing a physical, rhythmic and musical language as an ensemble.” says Glenn. The techniques they learned in Poland were applied to the story about the Polish bear.

Does the couple see a potential in presenting Wojtek’s story to ever new and growing audiences? “The response to the show in Edinburgh has been overwhelming!” says Kitty. She adds that they have had several requests to take the show on the road, so who knows? Perhaps Wojtek, the bear who went to war, will now become an ambassador of Polish history around the world.

Dorota Peszkowska
Photos: Sebastian Kuczyński