This might, had it been longer than a single act, have come across as drawn out and slow. It might also (this being closely based on a true story) have been a tale that continued on to its well-documented and not very nice conclusion. It is probably better not to have gone that far. As it is, Timothy Treadwell (Joseph Cullen), the self-proclaimed Gentle Tim, in whose honour this play is titled, starts off genial enough but gradually develops delusions of grandeur.
If it comes across as exaggerated or implausible, it isn’t, and because Treadwell was a documentary filmmaker as well as a grizzly bear environmentalist, there’s plenty of material online for anyone who wishes to verify Treadwell’s personality traits. What strikes me when looking at the real Treadwell’s footage is how accurately he is portrayed by Cullen in this play – the mannerisms, the tone of voice, the eccentricities – it’s all there.
What is strikingly absent from this survey of Treadwell and his obsession with bears is any sort of analysis of the situation. The audience is left to decide for themselves whether Tim is a good person or just a bit of a loon. I must admit some admiration for the man as he interacts with grizzly bears with seeming confidence and ease.
The bears are depicted by Laura Meaton, Marah Wilson, Jason Kajdi and William Uden. Treadwell has pet names for them all – the bears, I mean – and again, whether this is ludicrous or not is left to the audience to conclude either way. Mercifully, they are not in silly bear costumes, and the show is ‘gentle’ indeed in not subjecting us to deafening bear growls.
While I love simple storytelling – and Treadwell’s sometimes melodramatic and diva-like style makes for entertaining theatre – Cullen’s fellow actors are a little under-used in this play, even if I can’t fault the bear choreography. I wonder if the ‘thoughts’ of the bears could have been voiced in some way. I think it could have been done without compromising the relative impartiality of the show, particularly if opposing views were expressed.
But it’s short and sweet, and there’s humour to be had in listening to Treadwell’s reasoning. A satisfactory show bringing back to life a highly independent man who is any health and safety officer’s worst nightmare, Gentle Tim ends fairly positively, almost edging towards a philosophy so beloved of feel-good musicals: anything is possible, and impossible is nothing. In that regard perhaps the play is not so impartial after all.
Over The Limit Presents: Gentle Tim
The chilling story of one man’s interaction with nature.
27th-31st January 2016, Vaults Festival
Timothy Treadwell: the name that few remember but the story that none will forget. Gentle Tim reimagines this dramatic story through spoken word, movement and original music.
Critics have claimed self-obsession and self-promotion were the root of Timothy’s eccentricity. Friends and supporters have claimed he was a well-intentioned and passionate eco-warrior. Either way, Treadwell was the ultimate entertainer. Charming, chatty and childish he had a unique way with humans and bears alike; but which was ultimately his downfall? Spending 13 consecutive summers in Alaska, devoid of contact with the outside world, apart from his trusty camera, Treadwell’s story is one that has engrossed audiences across the world. But what possessed him to do it, and did he want the eyes of the world watching him or the bears that he so boldly championed? Was he determined to protect these wild animals? Or was he escaping to the wild as a means of self-protectionism?
Joseph Cullen’s new work explores these questions and reimagines some of the conversations that Treadwell had before his ultimate, grizzly end. Opening the Waterloo Vaults Festival in 2016, Cullen’s interpretation incorporates beautiful choreographed physical sequences alongside an original score to fully bring the Alaskan wilderness to London this winter.
Title: Gentle Tim
Venue: Waterloo Vaults, Leake Street, SE1 7NN