Gilded Butterflies is an intimate exercise in confessing everything but one’s sins. The main character, in a superb performance by Francesca McCrohon, is a hyperactive chatterbox confined to a solitary cell on death row, willing to spill out her thoughts to the new resident of the neighbouring cell, or indeed to no-one at all.
From an opening soliloquy that could easily be a stand-up comedy performance from an Edinburgh fringe breakout, McCrohon invites us into the eccentric, mis-matched world of Maggie, a death-row inmate in the US who is hoping for a reprieve and dreaming of the life she’ll have once free.
Her solitude is broken, and her life complicated, by a new prisoner in the next cell, played by Samantha Pain. The naïve, highly-strung Maggie is relieved to have someone to talk to, but the newcomer challenges her understanding of herself, and of the world.
Like a densely written Eugene O’Neill play, Gilded Butterflies is a journey into the psyche of its main character, slowly unravelling what it means to be Maggie in these extra-ordinary circumstances.
There’s a trite observation often made concerning difference between Christianity and Buddhism. In the former, “abandon hope” is an injunction so terrifying it is written over the very gate of hell; in the former it’s a step on the road to enlightenment.
It is hope that defines Maggie throughout this play, and hope that torments her. In the small, bare cell that comprises the set of this play you have only what you bring with you, or create out of thin air. Hope defines her and, as the play proceeds, hope torments her.
If Gilded Butterflies is an outstanding success as drama it is rather less so as agitprop. Perhaps this isn’t surprising; drama requires complex, nuanced characters and Gilded Butterflies delivers. In humanising Maggie the play takes her to a place where only the most vehement supporter of capital punishment could possibly support the execution to which she begins the play sentenced, and it’s unlikely any minds will be changed by a play that, however powerfully, treads already well-trodden paths.
If Gilded Butterflies doesn’t land a political message it’s quite possibly because it doesn’t need to. Two powerful central performances bring to life two women in extreme adversity. Female centric shows, especially ones with the dramatic pull and emotional potency of Gilded Butterflies, are rare enough to be treasured on their own merits.