Performing as part of Melbourne’s Poppyseed festival in 2017, Ruby Johnston and Benjamin Nichol’s Breadcrumbs is a parodic amalgamation of fairy tale tropes loosely inspired by Hansel and Gretel, peppered with contemporary Melbourne references. It’s a humorous and uncomfortable exploration of the ways in which domestic violence silently and insidiously becomes part of the norm. From gaslighting to verbal and physical abuse, the duo explores the role that gender constructs play in creating power imbalances and disempowering the vulnerable.
It’s an interesting vessel in which to unravel social conventions and expectations. The navigation of gender roles is exaggerated by the use of fairy tale tropes; masculine and feminine ideals are scrutinised through the absurd, provocative lenses of the two-dimensional and unrealistic stereotypes of princes and princesses. They prod and poke at the nature of happy endings as aspirational but unachievable.
In an interesting and arguably unnecessary move, Johnston and Nichol divide their audience into two, performing between two sets of tiered seating. At times, their concerted effort to ensure they perform to both sides of the audience is conspicuous; Johnston sings to one side of the audience, pauses, then turns and sings to the other side.
The set consists of a Perspex box in the centre of the stage and Perspex panelling on two sides of the stage, which is later lifted to function as the exterior of a house. After a somewhat crude deus ex machina, the box becomes Gretel’s ‘glass coffin’ as she sleeps for 100 years in a nod to both Snow White and Sleeping Beauty as the story moves to its second half.
Launched into the present in this Perspex time capsule, Nichol transforms from Gretel’s young, dim-witted brother Hansel to her corona-with-lime-drinking love interest in the fairy tale. This is an interesting decision given that Johnston and Nichol have given the audience a significant amount of time to establish Nichol in the role of Gretel’s brother, and we now need to shake this perception to accept him as this new character alongside new romantic dynamics. Nichol successfully steps into this new role, however there’s unfortunately (or fortunately, in light of Nichols’ first character) zero chemistry between the two. If this lack of chemistry is commentary on the unrealistic nature of fairy tales in rushing into relationships, it’s tenuous at best.
Beyond fairy tale tropes, Breadcrumbs plays with various contemporary stereotypes including the basement-dwelling neckbeard via the narrator, uncovered when Gretel speaks directly to her omniscient, generically masculine and now sexist narrator. Toxicity can lurk in anyone, they seem to suggest, but are they distracting from their own message here by humanising the perpetrator? Furthermore, flipping the roles of the victim and the abuser late in the performance, are they risking undermining the validity of the victim’s experience by suggesting that they may be at fault, justifying the abuser’s actions?
Johnston and Nichols shine a light on the insidiousness of domestic violence and the damaging nature of gender constructs in this accessible and provocative black comedy. Catch them until December 2nd at Meat Market’s The Stables in North Melbourne.