[Review:] BREAKING UP WITH REALITY, The Bread and Roses Theatre, London.
Written and performed by Eden Harbud and presented by Nod at the Fox theatre company, Breaking Up with Reality is a very enjoyable and resonant performance. Nevertheless, there are quite a few areas that need considerable work.
I shall start with the positives. Solo performer Eden Harbud has great energy and good conviction. From the delivery of the more poetic sequences to his delivery of the more conversational speech, Harbud has a great command over intonation, diction, pace and realism, complementing the mood of his dramatic text well. He demonstrates a good understanding and use of space, making sure to divide his attention across the entire audience. These aspects are most commendable.
The use of sound in this performance is also most effective. Repeating eerie or quirky sounds that are usually almost always fleeting, ignored background noises — such clicking, lip-popping, the whirring/droning of static, and bustling crowds — the library of sounds we are presented with gives this performance a unique and intriguing atmosphere. They create a wonderful sense of isolation, separation, distance, with the sounds of the busy crowds, for example, or with the sounds that draw our focus introspectively to the human body: breathing, clicking, for instance. Although, the inclusion of individual French voices amongst the crowds is rather strange to me, bearing no relevance to this performance. I would get rid of this.
That all of the material should be a symbolic representation of how the pandemic and the national lockdown have shaped our sense of reality is kept wonderfully concealed throughout this performance until the elbow-bopping scene wherein the real underlying context becomes apparent. This use of symbolism is most impressive in this text.
I must say, however, that the section about elbow-bopping is far too on-the-nose, so to speak. The coupling of the ‘New Normal’ and the elbow-bob is enough in itself for us to finally recognise the context of the pandemic if we have not already. As it stands, this speech is far too long, as though Harbud was emphasising representations of the pandemic as sedulously as he could so as to make us strongly aware of the underlying content.
Almost all of the symbolism in this dramatic text is relevant, topical and poignant: from the ‘mask’ worn by reality to the caged bird watching others take flight, to the more covert talking tea bags and cup game signifying the boredom of being alone and taskless in lockdown. However, the communication of other symbolic items, like ‘reality’ being represented by a rabbit is weak to me. I understand the connection made between Alice in Wonderland’s White Rabbit and a shift in reality, but this feels too far of a stretch and too incongruous with the rest of the material. It just seems absurd for the sake of it, as though Harbud has taken up origami as a hobby and used his most recent per-chance creation of a rabbit to inspire his work, backing it up with a reference to Lewis Carroll.
I should mention also that this initial origami scene wherein Harbud first makes the rabbit takes far too long. And the final absurd presentation is…underwhelming, especially considering that Harbud then proceeds irritatingly to hide his creation behind the wooden box — symbolism here again, as though reality is hiding from him, but to little effect when we have spent so long waiting to see the product of Harbud’s work alone.
In fact, I note here with emphasis that ALL scenes requiring delicate yet distinct and readable movements from Harbud are handled very poorly, from the final scene wherein the paper rabbit and bird are handled as though they are falling back in love with another to the initial flying of the bird alone. This is theatre, movements must be distinct, clear and decipherable. This is not the type of animation that I would expect from a trained puppeteer. As it currently stands, any communication is made through theme and through the context of Harbud’s movements alone, rather than the movements themselves. However, I must note that the use of mime in general in this performance is consistent, making for a congruity in performance style, which is most pleasing to observe and a necessary consistency that many theatremakers often overlook.
Back to this shift in our understanding of context. With this shift in context also comes a notable shift in the content and style of the dramatic text, much to its detriment. We go from talking tea bags and flying paper birds to Eden’s love for his cat and opinions on avocados. ‘Reality’ stops being a faceless entity symbolised by all of the other birds that are taking flight without him, by the passersby in the street, by his lover, by everything and everyone, and starts to be representative of his lover alone. Once fluid, esoteric, symbolic only of itself, Reality now has the face of Eden’s partner, and this shift in significance is far too great. Coinciding with the more natural, realistic material — again, the cat and the avacados, for example — we seem to have lost this sense of Reality’s significance completely. Reality must remain inclusive of all aspects of Eden’s world, not just his lover; otherwise, the final message of the play becomes confused.
I should also mention the significant section after this where focus drifts away from Reality altogether and deals with solipsism and questioning one’s perception of one’s own identity. I can understand why it was felt that this was relevant, but I am afraid the material drifts too far into solipsist philosophy and away from the main theme of this play. To elucidate, there is a notable nuance between the discourse of ‘WHO am I in relation to this world, both corporeally and spiritually?’ and of ‘WHAT am I? A product of my experiences? A culmination of my memories or of the perceptions of others?’ The former is in line with the themes and sentiments of the text; the latter, which is the discourse referenced in this aforementioned section, is not.
My last comment on this shift in content and style considers the poem about peachtree leaves. A cute, if simple, piece of poetry but whose rhyming scheme and fixed rhythm does not reflect the ‘poetical’ material we have been presented with thus far. This style of delivery is far too incongruous, and, again, I understand why this was thought to be relevant, but we have drifted too far from the main body of material, pretty though this poem may be.
Whilst I do enjoy the cyclicality of Harbud entering and exiting the same way, through the audience and from and back into ‘reality’, as it were, this type of direct audience address is used sparingly elsewhere. The paper-folding scenelet serves as the only other section in this performance, beyond the beginning and the end, when the audience are addressed in such a deliberate, overt and disruptive manner. Stylistically, audience function is confused, then. I enjoy the idea of incorporating metatheatricality into this performance, as a reminder that this performance, too, is part of our reality. This is especially poignant with the effects of the pandemic on theatres. With metatheatre transforming and shifting our temporospatial awareness and our understanding of the Other, its techniques could be useful in this performance. However, if metatheatrical techniques are to be employed, they must have a lasting and far more purposeful function, other than just to tell audience members that it is hoped they will enjoy the play.
Personally, I would completely scrap this paper-folding scene. Because it is so close to the beginning, especially, this prepares the audience for far too much participation that will not actually be called upon at all again throughout. More importantly, though, it also has no bearing whatsoever on the performance — the incorporation of origami being the only element we could relate this to, but even this does not refer us to the actual methodology and art of origami, just its products: the paper rabbit, bird and heart. Pointless material to include.
Whilst I disfavour that this performance somewhat concludes as a self-help or life guide, this a very strong performance that communicates itself well, overall. Harbud is a confident performer with great energy and has written an engaging, poignant and topical text. I must, as I have mentioned in previous reviews, distinguish between my own personal taste and my critical judgement, and so I shall note here that I myself would give this performance a slightly higher rating, but it is because of the aspects I have mentioned above that I give it the rating I do.