It's interesting and challenging to find that, within the space of barely 24 hours, one responds to two minimally staged pieces in opposite ways, in large part because of that same minimal staging. Joanna Murray-Smith's Honour in the National's Cottesloe Theatre works because all is removed except the intellectual argument and a clutch of individual performances which are in the event terrific; Debbie Tucker Green's dirty butterfly [sic] at Soho fails because the same process reveals not enough argument, not enough character, and not enough acting skills on the part of the cast to counterbalance the other lacks.
The stage is steeply raked, at about 40 degrees to the horizontal... so much so that perspex holds are required to keep the three players in place when they adopt their various standing or lying postures. The characters are Jo, confined in a violent sexual relationship, at once clearly the victim and yet paradoxically defiant in her dealings with the other two on stage; Amelia, Jo's housemate who has moved downstairs so as not to be tormented by the noises through her bedroom wall; and Jason, the next-door neighbour who becomes rather more mesmerised by what he hears, to the point of a kind of addiction.
The first two-thirds of the 60-minute evening are a non-specific voice poem in which each of three tries to retain their dignity in the face of half-articulated accusations that they collude in this abusive relationship by doing nothing to stop it; in the final movement, the playing area is lowered to the horizontal and becomes the café where Amelia is a cleaner, visited by a Jo bleeding from her groin and foretelling her own death.
There is a sense of the grey area in such circumstances, where inaction becomes complicity. But mostly, Tucker Green tries too hard to bring her work within the same "adventurous", non-linear category as latter-day Sarah Kane and the like; her self-consciousness betrays her, and director Rufus Norris does nothing to mask it. dirty butterfly is strong stuff in respect of its relentless grimness.. but this is not grim as in original or insightful, just as in rubbing our noses in it for an hour. It says nothing new; indeed, in offering no way out of the fundamental situation, it effectively says nothing at all.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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