Bad news first: Debbie Tucker Green’s play is not perfectly formed. The script’s first half, an extraordinarily poetic exploration of domestic abuse and its impact on those around the victim and the abuser, weaves together three essentially disconnected characters’ monologues, characters here separated from each other by lines of red sand that occasionally are crossed, and eventually physically disturbed, even as the monologic lines intersect and temporarily turn into dialogue. The story emerges slowly out of these separating and communicating lines, its temporality shifty (they begin as a narrative about the past, and about the aftermath of trauma, but shift in and out of that past as well), the characters’ moral positions first unclear, then compromised. In stark contrast to this highly evocative, elusive first act, the play’s second half stages a scene from the past the first half sketches: the abused neighbour, Jo, comes to the cafe where her neighbour, Amelia, is a cleaner, bleeding heavily — Amelia initially offers her little sympathy or help, but whether Jo has come for either is unclear. The language retains a certain poetic quality in this scene, too, but the action is presented in a far more straightforward dramatic mode. And then the play ends, with Jo bleeding to death on the cafe floor. Structurally, this left me a little dissatisfied: it’s a set-up that’s crying out for a third act, especially as the second half doesn’t resolve the majority of issues the first half raises. It’s an anecdotal counterpoint to the lyrical evocations that precede it, but the two halves don’t quite harmonize.
That said, this is a terrific production. Visually spare, it makes the most of its deliberately limited means: the lines of sand that first stand for the paper-thin walls of the characters’ terraced houses return in the second act as the trails of blood Jo is smearing over the floor Amelia has just cleaned so painstakingly; and in a desperate effort to keep the floor spotless, Amelia then creates new lines, now white, in the form of paper napkins as a walkway for the bleeding Jo, who’s now newly confined not between the red lines but on the white ones. It’s a visually arresting, metaphorically rigorous staging idea, beautifully simple and utterly compelling.
The three cast members, Kaleb Alexander, Lauren Brotman, and Cherissa Richards, are all excellent, and excellently directed by Jack Grinhaus. My heart sank when I first heard them delivering Green’s lines unaltered in a vaguely Carribbean-English London accent, but with the exception of a few glitches, they sustain that accent convincingly. And I soon understood why they chose to retain the play’s setting and voices (unlike, say, Seventh Stage’s recent Dora-nominated production of Bryony Lavery’s Stockholm). Green’s dialogue, while spare, often brutal, and largely free of imagery or metaphorical flights of fancy, is stunningly beautiful in its musicality, and this cast delivers it with a very impressive sense for the text’s cadences and rhythms, of which the inflections of the characters’ accents are an essential part. Green has been compared, perhaps inevitably given her subject matter, to Sarah Kane, but her language reminds me much more of dramatists such as Suzan Lori Parks — there is an abstract quality to her writing, for all its vulgarity, an investment in the sound and the melody of words and lines and sentences that finds poetry in language that at times makes the script sound like verbatim theatre. And yet, she is also writing in a social realist vein, and her characters could hardly be described as abstractions.
All of this poses a tremendous challenge for actors and director alike, and this company happily makes the most of them, striking a fine balance between psychological realism and a mode of delivering the lines that can at any moment surrender the character to the words and their sounds. One recurrent staging decision encapsulates their technique. Both Amelia (Richards) and her brother (?), Jason (Alexander), at various points cling to the black brick walls surrounding the narrow stage, Jason with pathological intensity, in a gesture that reads as a psychologically realist embodiment of anxiety; but they also turn those walls into an aid to vocal projection in those moments, letting them amplify and distort their words, and finding in that sound a rich note to add to the polyphony of Green’s score/script.
Dirty Butterfly may not be a play free of structural problems, but it is an intriguingly imperfect one; and this gorgeous, very accomplished, and rigorously conceived production makes the most of it. I’d love to see more shows like this.
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