Eleanor Dewar talks to star of The Bunker Theatre’s Before I Was A Bear, Jacoba Williams about becoming a big, furry beast, the positive effect of working in all-female environment and the saturation of male-dominated magazine covers.
Despite Greek mythology having stood the test of time, no one could ever claim it to be kind to women. Story after story depicts grotesque violence, usually in the form of rape and almost always committed by one of the Gods against a powerless mortal woman. The trauma too, very rarely ends there and in all too recognisable twists these mortal women are despised and punished, often turned into such animals as swans, cows and in the case of the unfortunate Callisto, a bear.
Enter Before I Was A Bear. Written by Eleanor Tindall and set to perform at The Bunker later this month, it is a modern retelling of the Callisto myth which explores themes of power and sexuality with a mild sprinkling of attractive celebrities and bears. I spoke to Jacoba Williams who plays the role of Callisto, or ‘Cally’ about Greek myth, the impact of #metoo and the true nature today’s celebrity culture.
Chatting to Williams is a pleasure. Easy going and passionate, she seems the perfect choice to cast in a feminist response to a rather misogynistic myth. “What’s really exciting about this is the story she gets to tell,” Williams explains to me as I ask what first drew her to the character of Cally. “Characters often tell the story of the writer or the play, but her story is the play. It’s unique and needs to be told.” As she speaks, Williams relates Cally to other, diverse roles she has done and tells me, “similar to this theme, I did a play about women who are turned away from a bar because of the colour of their skin. These are women who need to be heard and have previously been dismissed and silenced.”
During our phone call, Williams’s passion for the project is evident and I keenly ask her how the whole creative process of Bear has been. “It’s been really exciting exploring the world as a bear, and what being a bear means to Cally. Is it a physical thing or a psychological thing?” Key to what Williams seems the most excited about during the creative process is churning through the ideas of society and isolation. “What’s interesting in the myth is that she’s turned physically into a bear and goes from being part of a community to being exiled and how is someone today exiled? We don’t just banish people to the woods.” Though the abstract meanings of the play don’t detract from its accessibility. “The play itself has similarity to the original myth, but you don’t need to know it. It’s its own story.”
Before I Was A Bear is part of a long line of Greek myth adaptations and I ask Williams what she thinks makes these myths so eternally endearing to the modern viewer. “I wonder – I don’t know if I have the answer – something about it being universal. The Gods don’t come down and people don’t turn into stars, but the morals and lessons are the same.” Jacobs then goes on to reflect that, “if someone like a god has universal power, its unlimited as to what do they do.” As mentioned, Greek mythology does have a sketchy history with the treatment of women. I am curious to find out about Williams’s thoughts on society’s apparent willingness to forget the not so nice parts of the stories we love. “It’s easier to focus on the nice things and not the bad bits about ourselves. It’s fine to control thunder in stories but what would that mean in reality?”
It’s impossible to avoid the topic of gender within a play so enriched in ideas of femininity and power “It’s an all-female team and it’s exciting to be in a space where there are no power dynamics,” Williams explains. The themes of sexual hypocrisy and female shaming in the original myth seems ever more real in the world of #metoo with Williams describing the situation perfectly. “As women we have all been through something, and that’s something that unites us.” What seems to interest Williams the most however, is the discussions of power, whether it be between gods and men or men and women. “We’re brought up to idolise these male celebrities. Growing up, my magazines were covered with men. It’s a weird power thing. That’s the culture that we need to tackle.”
I end the interview on a positive note. I ask Williams if in the wake of #metoo, are narratives around women and their sexuality changing? “I don’t know but I hope so,” she ponders. “I hope it isn’t just a wave and trend. Let’s be positive and say I hope so, there is a real power in things like Extinction Rebellion. People are being heard against the greater power. Some things take forever, but people are changing the way they talk about each other, saying ‘oh I can’t say that’ rather than just saying it. Let’s hope so.” With artists like Williams around, we have a lot more than hope on our side.
Before I Was a Bear is playing from 12 – 23 November. For more information and tickets, visit The Bunker Theatre’s website.