The Breadhorse is a work of performance without a creative hierarchy: an unusual and brave experiment in equality in collaboration. There is no writer or director, but a 16-strong company of actors who have been working together on this for a year. Alan Garner’s poem, on which this production is based, takes as its narrative a playground game in which a child is picked to be the Horse, having to carry another on his back as the other children chant. There’s one child that gets chosen to be the Horse more often than the rest, and though the rules state that the rider must be gentle, the suggestion is that this is not always the case. Firebird Theatre have taken the poem, examined and deconstructed it, to produce a 40 minute piece that’s abstract, layered and evocative.
Playground teasing and carrying the burden of growing up are obvious themes, but as the performance progresses, deeper consideration of the concept of ‘breadhorse’ causes us to think about the way we relate to our own emotional, social, and physical difficulties. The fact that Firebird Theatre is a company of disabled actors, and that the Breadhorse game is essentially physical, necessarily emphasises the idea of bullying and of the difficulty of being different – though this is not overtly stated. This is a performance where many, many themes are offered, but conclusions are not drawn.
The Breadhorse is made up of words rather than actions – and is captioned and signed. The actors share their devised text equally, often repeating phrases or words to build up or highlight an idea or a theme. The effect is like viewing an abstract expressionist painting. You are somehow removed from the substance of the portrait, but instead are involved in a multifaceted, multicoloured portrayal of the subject, that requires more interpretation than expected but potentially offers greater reward. This piece eventually builds to a climax of sorts, but what exactly it was, I couldn’t tell you, though the feeling was good and strong.
An impressive band of ‘community’ musicians and choir provide another dimension to the spoken word aspect of the performance, evoking the playground chanting that is the backing to the game when they pick up on a Romany poem that has made its way into the performance text. It’s a horse-whisper; a command and an endearment from a rider to a horse, in a culture where a horse is a precious commodity and a cultural emblem. It subtly adds so many more dimensions to this performance. If you don’t read the Romany words’ meanings in the show’s programme, you won’t know what they are, and at times during the performance it feels as if the actors have themselves forgotten what the words mean and why they’re saying them – they become simply a rhythm.
Rhythm and timing is something that is very strong in this show. The actors have a huge confidence and presence, and are visibly proud of their work. In fact, pride is the strongest and clearest emotion transmitted by The Breadhorse, and it rubs off on the audience, the musicians and the singers – everyone sitting up straight, connected to one another, as if having received a call to arms.
The decision to include everyone equally was a laudable one, and perhaps the decision to follow so many different ideas on a single theme came from the same place. The product is a fascinating, kaleidoscopic contemplation on some vital themes – but a director or some stricter editing could have helped to pull this show together and enable it to speak more directly to its audience.