By Debbie Tucker Green
Directed by Martin White
With Ella Caldwell, Vincent Miller & Kat Stewart
Set by Danielle Brustman
Lighting by Dans Sheehan
Dirty Butterfly (23/07/2003 – 17/08/2003) –Helen Thomson, The Age 30-Jul-03
Earlier this year, British writer Debbie Tucker Green was commissioned to write Dirty Butterfly by London’s Soho Theatre Company. Green’s work has been likened, with some justice, to that of Sarah Kane, both stylistically and in terms of its deprived, life-hardened, young Londoner characters.
Dirty Butterfly is an intense piece of theatre, and director Martin White has increased the intensity by rapidly pacing the dialogue, spoken under the pressure of strong emotion, without reflective pauses. Each of the three characters, thus, in a sense, seems to be delivering a monologue addressed as much to themselves as to the others.
Jo (Kat Stewart), living just a paper-thin wall away from Amelia (Ella Caldwell) and Jason (Vince Miller), is the victim of nightly episodes of rough sex and domestic violence. Amelia’s response has been one of denial, moving downstairs to sleep on the sofa, out of earshot.
But Jason has become the victim of a fascinated voyeurism, apparently both appalled and aroused by what he hears every night through the wall. Its effect on him is literally disabling, rendering him almost unable to speak or move from his room.
Yet it is Jo who really dances with danger, greeting each morning to consider the possibility that it will be her last.
The play’s hidden and horrifying subtext has to do with domestic violence, but it does not answer the question of why women like Jo accept their victim role apparently without hope of escape.
Amelia’s response, also, is the puzzling one of anger, and the question is whether it is because she does not act, or because Jo does not. The dialogue explores the relationships within the trio, strangely distorted by unspoken horror.
In a weird sense, Jo’s victimhood provides her with a kind of power over her two witnesses, and she taunts them with knowledge they can hardly bear. The final scene sees some of the boundaries down, but Amelia can only give emotional support as Jo spirals towards the end of her dark odyssey.
The three performances in this powerful work are first-class, and we owe thanks to Red Stitch for alerting us to a new, challenging talent in Green.
Bill Perrett, The Sunday Age 03-Aug-03
Dirty Butterfly (23/07/2003 – 17/08/2003) by Debbie Tucker Green. Directed by Martin White.
Dirty Butterfly is a most intense and enthralling piece of theatre. It is above all a play of words. Characters speak in a working-class London idiom that’s been pared down, concentrated and repeated until it becomes a form of dramatic poetry.
Physical action is slow, studied, ritualistic. It is confined in cell-like spaces that emphasise the claustrophobic nightmare world of the characters.
The story is simple. Jo (Kat Stewart) is trapped in a physically abusive relationship. One of her neighbours is Jason (Vince Miller), who listens compulsively through his walls to the violence in Jo’s flat. He is drawn to her plight out of intense sympathy, amounting to a kind of love, but is unable to help her. Amelia (Ella Caldwell) also knows about Jo’s situation, but has moved downstairs from her comfortable flatto escape the terrible state of affairs next door. She wants to free Jason from his unbearable obsession and to find an alternative in some kind of normality.
For Amelia, the best way to deal with Jo’s problem is to get as far away from it as possible, to concentrate on doing her cleaning job in a cafe conscientiously. But she has as little chance of staying uncontaminated by the terrible self-destruction as the other two have of removing themselves from it.
Dirty Butterfly is a tough and confronting play. It is also very moving. The cast is remarkably good. Miller’s Jason mixes compassion with voyeurism, helplessness with obstinacy. Caldwell’s practical Amelia makes a convincingly sane contrast to the other two.
Without doubt, though, the outstanding performance is from Stewart. Jo is a finely drawn and complex character. While she is unable to remove herself from repeated, savage and predictable physical ill-treatment at the hands of her unseen abuser, she is self-aware, with an excruciating understanding of what is happening to her. In the worst of her desperation she is still capable of dark humour, and Stewart conveys this combination of vulnerability and strength with insight and skill.
Martin White’s direction understands all the intricacies of the script and keeps them tightly balanced. The set by Danielle Brustman is intelligent and economical and reflects the combination of grubby realism and stylisation of the play. Red Stitch continues to present challenging drama and performances of quality.
Vincent Miller, Ella Caldwell and Kat Stewart in Dirty Butterfly. Picture: Jodie Hutchinson.