“I wanted to be with the animals”
There’s plenty of men looking for bears under the railway arches of Southwark for those of that particular persuasion but in Gentle Tim, it’s most definitely the more ursine types in play. Over The Limit’s inaugural London production, directed by Sinead O’Callaghan, takes its inspiration from the life of Timothy Treadwell, immortalised in Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man but given a new treatment here by Joseph Cullen, who also plays Tim himself.
Treadwell was an American environmentalist, best known for spending 13 consecutive summers in Alaska with nothing but a video camera and the population of grizzly bears there for company. Cullen asks the question whether he was a genuinely well-intentioned documentary-maker or a fantasist suffering delusions of grandeur in the isolated Alaskan wilderness. Blending physical theatre, a score of cinematic scale and dramatic monologue, Gentle Tim looks anew at this fascinating figure.
Cullen gives a striking performance as Treadwell, a highly idiosyncratic man, and perhaps wisely steers clear of trying to give any clear answers about whether his retreat from conventional society was more about running away from humans as it was towards the bears. What you do get it is a sense of just how zealous he was, fiercely committed to his lifestyle, no matter the reason, and yet still touchingly human on occasion, always carefully tidying the strands of his hair peeking through his backwards cap before switching on the camera.
And his relationship with the bears (a group of four which he meets here) is fascinating in its strangeness. He names them, he personalises them (“she was the Michelle Pfeiffer of bears”), he gets close to them. Too close? At just under an hour, Gentle Tim stops well before we reach his demise (if you don’t know, google it!) and this feels somewhat appropriate, allowing the audience to consider the man more than the myth.
The movement of the ursine quartet, choreographed by Laura Meaton, is most effective when it is inspired by animalistic behaviour rather than mimicking it directly. A sequence in response to much-needed rain is hugely graceful in its quiet artistry whereas the straight fight between the two males doesn’t work quite as well. Atmospheric drama is layered on by an excellent musical score from Odinn Orn Hilmarsson and a striking lighting design from Gregory Jordan. A strong opening for the 2016 VAULT festival and for Over The Limit Theatre too.