Hope Theatre, London – until 24 November 2018
Capturing something of the tragedy of solitary confinement, Gilded Butterflies is an evocative hour at the Hope Theatre.
The walls of the Hope Theatre stripped back to nothing, the dimensions of two 6ft x 9ft prison cells marked out on the floor, grimly uncomfortable camp beds the only furniture in each. There’s no way that theatre can hope to replicate the conditions of solitary confinement but there’s a harshness to the design of Gilded Butterflies that certainly starts that conversation.
Created by the company Tormented Casserole and inspired by the experiences of real people on Death Row, Gilded Butterflies follows the incarcerated Maggie as she pins her hopes on an appeal that she believes will set her free. Through conversations with herself, with a prisoner who moves in next door, with her lawyer and finally with her estranged sister, we discover just something of what imprisonment can do to a soul.
The writing cuts deep with a convincing sense of authenticity, suffused with the kind of detail that speaks to hard-lived experience rather than any romanticised notion of prison life. So the things she misses are the humble joys of scrambled eggs and a Chinese takeaway, bubble baths and glasses of wine. And the few pleasures she can seize come from growing a tomato plant or releasing a moth caught by her light.
Francesca McCrohon imbues all of this with real conviction and a directness that is almost distressing, particularly as hints are increasingly dropped about the tragic nature of her crime. Kathryn Papworth-Smith’s direction does feel like it could afford to be more theatrical though. There’s no verve to Samantha Pain’s transformation between her three characters and it feels more could be made of the hallucinatory strangeness where we end up, if only to elevate the staging to the richness of the writing.