A must-see for fans of Samuel Beckett or Sarah Kane, Debbie Tucker Green’s dirty butterfly succinctly captures the horrors of cyclical domestic violence, but doesn’t forget to charm and amuse along the way.
“I know you know what happens when it’s not a good morning.”
Three long and black rectangular platforms were placed in a parallel formation across the stage. The characters of Amelia, Jo and Jason – with tired and desperate expressions – sat atop a platform each; separated by manoeuvrable and transparent plastic sheets that were decorated with butterflies. From this geometric prison, lit in orange and dark red, the characters revealed their struggles for satisfaction in an utterly desperate environment.
The language of the piece is immediately striking. At some moments it was very conversational and made use of colloquialisms and naturalistic speech errors. In other moments it was a seamless blend of Shakespearean exclamation (with a few uses of the rhyming couplet) and rap verse. The fusion of these linguistic devices created something that felt wholly original and unpredictable, and never once did I feel like anything jarred. Debbie Tucker Green must be applauded for the meticulous work she has done on this script.
All three actors brought a thoughtful realism and intensity to their parts. The quivering caged bird, Jo – the victim of the abuse in the story – was played with conviction and intensity by Rebecca Pryle. Dressed in a bright white dress and with her arms clutched across her abdomen, Rebecca spoke the maddening and cyclical thoughts of a woman trapped in a hideous relationship. We despaired not only for the pain that was inflicted on Jo, but also for the fact she couldn’t pull herself away from it. The make-up and props team did a perfect job with the hideous bruises on her eyes and the blood that dripped from her under her dress.
Rachel Clarke was both heart-breaking and hilarious as Amelia. When we meet Amelia, her sympathy for Jo’s situation has tragically been whittled away to nothing. Amelia’s stiff upper lip and enthusiastic attitude to life means she looks at Jo with unrelating eyes. She scorns Jo for loving someone who treats her so despicably. But the implication is – at the end of the piece – that despite all her threats, Amelia will always open the door to Jo when she needs her. In order to restore a little of the audience’s faith in the world, Rachel performed a thoroughly entertaining dance/cleaning routine to the music of S Club 7, which also doubled as a set change between the two acts of the play. Rachel managed to accurately recreate that fearless type of singing that occurs when someone is on their own, except we got to see it.
Andy Umerah as Jason was incredibly engaging. His eyes – through both a combination of excellent make-up and characterisation – looked heavy and his body shook with a mixture of fear and disgust. As Jo is beaten, as she weeps, as she lies awake at night in bed with her captour, Jason can hear everything. It has become an obsession for him to listen to every sound coming through a “flimsy wall” that seperates his room from Jo’s. You’re not quite sure of the full nature of Jason’s unhealthy obsession until right at the end of the first act. But I’m afraid that revelation is too important for me to spoil as it entirely changes the way you see the character from then on.
These terrific performances could not have been possible without Tessa Hart’s sharp direction. The cast were in tip-top shape; there was not one flutter of a line nor loss of energy in Act One. Tessa clearly understands the importance of discipline and precise blocking when comes to directing surreal theatre. The one criticism I would have of the piece is pacing of the second act – a disturbing scene between Jo and Amelia in the café. The pauses were effective in demonstrating the speechlessness of the characters (for different reasons), but it was a little too much in places and lost momentum before the end. In response to my own argument, I would say that this scene was deliberately made very sparse to make it feel like a real life moment. But either way, it did not completely gel with the perfectly paced and stylised first act.
To conclude, I will say that dirty butterfly is both original and almost perfectly executed. Not to be missed by those who love theatre that strays away from convention, and sure to be alternative hit in the years to come.