I remember when I used to dislike Wayne Blair. This negativity was mostly based on seeing him as the guest actor in “An Oaktree” two years ago, a show where a different performer was led through the play every night at downstairs Belvoir (go here for more info). I felt that Blair failed to make any interesting choices or take any risks, and as such, the show felt really flat. I had also heard horrible things about his direction of “The Removalists” at STC last year. In retrospect, to base my opinion of him on a theatrical experiment that was not his own, and a show that I didn’t even see was perhaps unfair. The last two shows of his I have seen have been truly fantastic. The first, being Ruben Guthrie, which I certainly spoke in adoration of to many of my friends but I think because of impending overseas travel I never blogged about, and now this new production of Debbie Tucker Green’s harrowing Dirty Butterfly. It seems my opinion of Wayne Blair is now distinctly positive.
Before seeing this play, I kept hearing that it was “forceful”. This is a pretty apt description. From the moment the actors enter the space, the audience is on the back foot. At first it’s because of the language. Debbie Tucker Green doesn’t waste time with unnecessary words. While she takes advantage of repetition, she doesn’t use excess flourish, but rather writes lines that cut straight through the excess of normal speech to simply state what the character needs to say, and it is certainly a need with these characters rather than a want. This play deals with the needs of three broken individuals. Every word they speak is a plea to another character, or perhaps to something larger.
Just as the language starts to settle with you, and you’ve got a handle of its rhythms and idiosyncrasies, the content begins to push at you. It becomes apparent that the conversation being had is not in relation to any small matter, but rather that of a continuously abusive relationship. The story of this abuse, and the other character’s contrasting responses to it, are then extracted from all three characters for the audience to experience. Then, just as the audience is beginning to come to terms with the story and deal with its horrible implications, the scene changes, we are given a moment of relief (with the best use of an S Club 7 track you will ever hear) before the physical ramifications of the story we have just been told are thrust upon us in all their horror. Wayne Blair doesn’t pull any of the play’s punches, and the final third of the play is played out on a pure white floor, whilst a broken and bruised woman bleeds all over this cleaner’s dream from her many wounds and possible miscarriage. At no point are we given the chance to feel comfortable as the play winds to a tragic close.
Dirty Butterfly is an unforgiving experience. It deals with some disturbing issues that our society normally tries to sweep under the carpet: domestic violence, sexual pleasure from violence, and the simple but unachievable dreams of the underclass. That’s not to say that there aren’t a few laughs, or heart-warming moments. But they are few and far between, and are more often created by the audience in a vain attempt to find some comfort in the content. Debbie Tucker Green’s interests clearly lie in the needs of the less fortunate and here their desires and frustrations are beautifully yet horrifically articulated. This was her debut, and it is not surprising that it made quite an impact. I’m very glad it finally made its way to Australia.
There are two other noteworthy points I feel I need to make about this production. Firstly, it had a majority non-white, majority female cast – an absolute rarity for the Australian stage and something it should receive just recognition for. Secondly, the acting. I have been very proud of the last two shows I’ve seen in Sydney. Like A Fishbone at the Wharf showcased two incredible performances from Anita Hegh and Marta Dusseldorp (more on that to come) and now this show, which demanded incredible dedication from its actors. Zoe Houghton, Dorian Nkono & Sara Zwangobani all pull out stellar performances, finding the sense and rhythm of Tucker Green’s often complex language. Whether it is the joy Zoe finds in her character’s harassment of the others, or Sara’s delightful description of how she sometimes pretends to be a barista, the actors bring an incredible energy to these dark stories. I only hope this trend of exceptional acting continues.