Hope Theatre, London – until 24 November 2018
While women make up a smaller proportion of prison populations worldwide, the comparatively smaller numbers are often used as an excuse by the powers-that-be to invest less money, resources and pastoral care to women’s correctional facilities. Also, in places that have a track record for ignoring or not ‘recognising’ women’s rights generally, this practise can be traced back to the established legal systems. Of course, as a result of this, no effort’s made for the understanding and rehabilitation of women, and the severest sentences are often pursued… Devised by theatre company Tormented Casserole and directed by Kathryn Papworth-Smith, Gilded Butterflies looks at two women who are on death row in the United States.
Maggie (Francesca McCrohon) has been in solitary for a while, but the presence of another prisoner (Samantha Pain) in the cell next to her, lifts her spirits. The other prisoner, however, doesn’t say anything for a very long time, so it’s left to Maggie to chat about what’s on her mind. Maggie’s dialogue is always layered – on the surface concerned with external things, but abounding in a subtext about her past and present circumstances. Her dialogue also holds the key to her mental health – based on her conditions in incarceration and the events that led to her ‘crime’.
As well as playing the other prisoner, Pain portrays two other characters who are important to Maggie – her sister Lauren, plus her lawyer. Between them, we get a sense of the bigger picture and how the ‘outside world’ views this congenial, if unassured, young woman. Hearing ‘the truth’, we understand why Maggie – who has been under mental duress for the longest time – would withdraw from ‘reality’ into her ‘bubble’ of positivity.
While the play deals with weighty issues, the play isn’t didactic – choosing instead to let non-verbal communications and ‘half-said’ conversations convey what the respective characters are truly thinking and feeling. Both actors are excellent in their respective parts, but Gilded Butterflies is undoubtedly Maggie’s tale and even knowing ‘what she’s done’, the audience can’t help but feel empathy for her plight…