Butterfly, written by Vici Wreford Sinnott is a one-woman theatre piece performed by Jaqueline Phillips, which explores the history of stigma and misrepresentations of mental health throughout the ages. Joe Turnbull saw an early outing at Arc Stockton on 26 January 2017, as the show prepared to go on a national tour.
Beatrice is trapped in a stark room, against her will. She is visited by Butterfly, an excitable character who part-narrates the show and also acts as a harbinger for Boudica, the Celtic Queen who led the English uprising against the invading Romans.
Together, the pair take Beatrice on a time-travelling journey to visit female characters from history who have been persecuted for being outsiders; drawing parallels with how we treat mental health issues in contemporary society.
The trio visit a Roman woman, Barbara, whose nature incurs the ire of her community; a pagan outsider whose midnight walks bring her under suspicion for being a witch; and the early days of asylums, when the public would pay to see the ‘specimens’. They also revisit chapters from Beatrice’s life: identity-defining moments, intimating how important seminal songs are to our sense of self.
If this all sounds a little hard to follow that’s because at times, it is bewilderingly so. Jacqueline Phillips is tasked with acting out this entire cast spanning two millennia, switching frantically between characters, only aided by the silent poetry of the BSL interpreter. Butterfly has the ambitions of Icarus, bordering on flying too high.
The character-development feels a little lacking in some areas – how can one actor deliver five (or more) fully-rounded individuals in one hour? As a result, there are moments which should kick you in the gut and bring you to tears, but don’t quite manage it. That said, Butterfly is fiercely ambitious with a lightness of touch, which carries the audience along.
Giving the piece a topical flavour, we later learn that Beatrice’s prison is an enforced mental health assessment. This is not immediately obvious. Beatrice could just as easily be at home, either reliving a past trauma, or imagining a future one. The introduction of time-travel and the historical figure of Boudica, in another context might just seem like a fantastical piece of storytelling that we would accept. But knowing what we do, it inevitably makes the audience suspect it could be the product of Beatrice’s imagination, potentially a psychotic episode.
This is Wreford Sinnott holding the audience’s preconceptions up, like a mirror, and reflecting them back at us. ‘It is not all in Beatrice’s head,’ assert the programme notes. Why do we make the assumption that it must all be the result of the delusions of an unstable mind? Are truth and reality really so fixed? Or are they merely the imposition of a particular perspective held as the norm by the majority, with all those who deviate deemed ‘mentally ill’. The notion that Beatrice is ‘mentally ill’ only comes from interpreting the play’s events through a lens, which reflects the dominant paradigm.
The different acts of the piece take the lexis of the courtroom with titles like ‘the defence,’ ‘the prosecution’ and ‘the verdict’; another setting which takes the truth for granted as a set of absolute, objective facts. Thematically, this ties in to the feelings of guilt often felt by the subjects of patriarchal oppression, regardless of how innocent they may be.
The character of Elizabeth personifies this ‘guilty victim’ role. She is a reclusive character who is introduced to the play by a series of answerphone messages she leaves for Beatrice, whilst the latter is kept under lock-and-key. As Elizabeth’s own tragic tale unfolds, the guilt and shame that keeps her locked in a prison of isolation is exposed for its ridiculousness. She is not to blame for her plight nor should she feel any guilt. The inextricable link between these two strangers is revealed at the play’s climax.
As Beatrice journeys with Butterfly and Boudica they implore her to become a reluctant hero, a ‘reclaimer’ as they call it; someone to speak out on behalf of the outsiders who are so badly treated. Perhaps this speaks to reclaiming the identity of the non-conformist; inverting the negative connotations with mental health. Butterfly’s character alludes to the ‘butterfly effect’ and chaos theory: “how a tiny trigger can have monumental consequences”.
Whilst the language here alludes to mental health ‘triggers’ − often seemingly minor incidents, which can lead to a much bigger breakdown – the overall message of Butterfly subverts this point. That’s to say, we shouldn’t underestimate the significance of one person taking a stand; the ripple effects of which can often lead to a sea-change. It’s high time the tide turned on attitudes towards mental health. This accomplished play may just be the butterfly, which sparks the hurricane we need.
Butterfly is touring until April 2017 (further dates to be added to DAO’s listings) and will be showing in London, Lincoln, Exeter, Oxford, Harrogate, Washington, Halifax, Newcastle, Deptford and Bradford.