Butterfly

Vici Wreford-Sinnott
Little Cog, Annabel Turpin and Cultural Shift
Stage 3, Northern Stage, Newcastle

Jacqueline Phillips
Jacqueline Phillips

I’ve been wanting to see Butterfly since it went on tour in January but its first couple of North East dates clashed with other things and it looked like the same was going to happen with the Northern Stage performance—until about two in the afternoon when the evening became suddenly and unexpectedly free. A quick 'phone call and a ticket was reserved for the last opportunity to see the play locally.

I had wanted to see it because, according to the advance publicity, it’s about Beatrice, “an unlikely heroine in a story of not-so-everyday survival, who sits in isolation, waiting for the outcome of a forced mental health assessment.” It sounded unusual and interesting.

It’s both, but the publicity blurb is misleading because it’s not just about Beatrice and her mental health, it’s about all women who are different. Perhaps they are mentally ill, or perhaps they live away from others and know enough about herbs to be able to cure illnesses and thus gain the reputation of being a witch, or perhaps, like Boudica, Queen of the Iceni, who led a revolt against the Roman occupiers, they simply don’t correspond to what is expected of a woman.

Beatrice and her assessment are part of it, as is the butterfly of Chaos Theory, part of a rich tapestry of lives and people—such as, for example, the “lunatics” who were put on display in Bedlam for a penny for the delectation of the middle classes. From the death of the defeated Boudica, through the medieval woman condemned as a witch, to the 21st century woman facing a compulsory mental health assessment, this one-woman play covers them all, and many more.

It’s a complex roller-coaster of a piece: writer and director Vici Wreford-Sinnott makes no concessions to anyone with a short attention span. Butterfly requires the full attention of its audience and empathy for the suffering of others.

There are signposts to help: changes of lighting state, the use, occasionally, of a microphone, the positioning of the actress on stage (either on, behind or to the side of the table which sits stage centre), the use of music and the occasional use of a video projection on the back wall of the head of the rather scary Nurse Ratched-type character who is doing the assessment. All of these help but it is the performance of Jacqueline Phillips which really carries the piece.

It’s a veritable tour de force from Phillips, from the moment when the sheet-covered body on the table sits up and says, “did you think I was dead?” to the moment when, 70 minutes later, the play ends, she morphs through more characters than I can remember (attention span—right?), with only body language and voice to distinguish each one, in a play which, as can so easily happen with issue-led drama, could have deteriorated into preachy but worthy propaganda instead of the compelling piece it is.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan