><R&J | The Breadbeard CollectivePhoto – Al Caeiro

I was left frustrated by The Breadbeard Collective’s ><R&J.

It was an odd experience. It’s an incredibly busy work. A violent re-imaging of Romeo & Juliet overseen by Lucas Stibbard of The Escapists, ><R&J sees performers swapping roles at random throughout, frantically reciting Shakespeare in unison, performing a variety of songs on multiple musical instruments and even delivering full-fledged dance numbers. There’s even an aerobic workout. Yet, nothing really moved me.

I’ve been wrestling with that since I saw the work. On one level, I knew it was a matter of taste. Driven by a desire to make theatre for contemporary audiences (“forever scrolling internet users, up-late YouTube watchers, DVD box-set bingers and magazine skimmers”, in their words), The Breadbeard Collective champion an aesthetic I traditionally greet with a certain degree of skepticism – a certain post-internet postmodernism.

><R&J is a clear product of that aesthetic. It’s eclectic, ironic, highly referential and revels in deconstruction and transformation. Projections offer a benevolently snarky commentary throughout. The soundtrack is a canny and contemporary critic-proof selection of indie-rock (Arcade Fire), post-punk (Joy Division) and hip hop (Kanye West). Throughout, actors leap in and out of role and comment on each other’s performances.

However, I also knew it wasn’t solely a matter of taste. On paper, it sounds quite exciting. In practice, it’s actually quite dull. To my mind, there are a couple of reasons for that disconnect and, while some are related to The Breadbeard Collective’s choice of aesthetic, they’re not artistic choices I dislike as a matter of personal preference but decisions that would appear to have negatively impacted the work as a whole.

Firstly, there doesn’t appear to be much substance to the work beyond its aesthetic. This is not necessarily a problem for a work. There is nothing wrong with an aesthetic-driven work. However, ><R&J’s aesthetic is not especially original. It’s an incredibly contemporary style of entertainment. Issues of quality aside, something like Family Guy utilises the same array of devices, draws from a similar pool of references and has done for years.

At this point, there’s a temptation to argue that aforesaid bag of tricks hasn’t been deployed in regards to a contemporary adaptation of Romeo & Juliet. Except, there’s nothing innately fascinating about applying a modern aesthetic to an established work. Particularly when it comes to Shakespeare. At times, ><R&J feels suspiciously like your old English teacher rapping at you to convince you Shakespeare was cool.

Which brings us to our second point. There doesn’t appear to be a clear or consistent reason for applying aforesaid aesthetic to Romeo & Juliet. At the outset of the work, a projection claims that it’s a form of experiment to see if the inevitability of Shakespeare’s narrative can be averted. Except, there is absolutely no reflection of those (somewhat ambiguous) aims and intentions within the performers.

There is no visible investment in whether any of the ensemble’s experiments work or don’t work on the part of any of the performers. Whether they’re singing a song, having conversations about Shakespeare as themselves, delivering Shakespeare’s dialogue. There is no assessment or investment in their success or failure. The performers simply throw themselves into each task (with gusto, it must be said) and move onto the next.

This creates a big problem within the work. Namely, it leaves ><R&J bereft of drama. On account of their hosts’ attempts to sabotage and distort their source text, audiences aren’t invested in the plot of Romeo & Juliet. They’re invested in the performers who are so gleefully destroying said text. Except, there doesn’t appear to be any real reason for why they’re doing it. So, there’s no drama, progression or conflict for the audience.

There is an argument that the performers are doing all of this because it’s fun or because Shakespeare is fascinating. In fact, I’m actually confident that is a motivation. Unfortunately, it’s not evident on stage. Throughout, there’s an abundance of snarky criticisms of the bard that make it seem like the cast don’t even like his work. In regards to fun, the work is simply too tightly choreographed and scripted for that to be seen.

Which brings us to our third point: The Breadbeard Collective don’t appear to have much faith that what they are doing is actually interesting. This is borne out by a variety of factors. If nothing else, ><R&J’s projections explain absolutely everything done within the work. Every device is explained, every piece of dialogue is translated or has subtitles, every spontaneous change in role is written in gigantic letters on the wall.

There’s also the fact that each moment of non-Shakespearean dialogue feels disgustingly scripted. The idea of the cast reflecting on the play and what it means to them as it unfolds is excellent – but the audience is never given a chance to have that genuine insight. Instead, you get overly rehearsed versions of those conversations. This actually plays a big part in killing the drama of the production and obscuring the purpose of its existence.

Finally, The Breadbeard Collective’s aesthetic is played very broad. For example, their music selections. Grammy-winners Arcade Fire and accepted hip hop crossovers Kanye West and Missy Elliott. Even with a joke choice like Britney Spears, they opt for her most recent hit (‘Work’). Admittedly, I could be reading too much into this facet of the work. It just doesn’t feel very personal.

In fact, that little thought probably sums up why I felt so frustrated with ><R&J. It felt so impersonal. At the heart of it, there are ideas that spark and ignite. The perpetually shifting roles is a great experiment. When the personalities of the actors shine through, they deliver beautiful moments. In one instant, Cameron Clarke is determined to deliver the Queen Mab monologue (to the dismay of his castmates). The results are fantastic.

There were too few of those moments, though. Overall, ><R&J felt like a very cold and clinical exercise. It may seem like a hollow sentiment coming from someone who just spent a thousand words criticising their work – but I truly wish The Breadbeard Collective had been more confident with their daring. More indulgent. More personal. Weirder. As it stands, ><R&J feels like it’s missing a heart.

The Breadbeard Collective and La Boite Indie present

Director Lucas Stibbard

Venue: Roundhouse Theatre | 6 – 8 Musk Ave, Kelvin Grove
Dates: 13 - 30 Nov, 2013
Times: Tues & Wed 6.30pm, Thurs – Sat 7.30pm
Bookings: (07) 3007 8600 | www.laboite.com.au

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