by Ramesh Meyyappan
The Esplanade: The Studios
Esplanade Theatre Studio, Singapore

It's impossible to watch a Ramesh Meyyappan production and not be filled with a sense of awe. The deaf, Glasgow-based Singaporean artiste’s physical theatre productions are marked by their simplicity and profound visual narrative: a reminder that one can effectively capture an entire spectrum of human emotions without ever needing to rely on dialogue. In Butterfly, Meyyappan presents us with a stunning adaptation of the well-known tale of Madame Butterfly that is by turns breathtaking and barbarous.

This taut, sixty-minute performance makes use of the most basic of props but manages to be larger than itself precisely due to the beauty and grace in which it is executed. Butterfly (Ashley Smith) is a fun-loving kite-maker who meets a travelling lepidopterologist, Nabokov (Meyyappan), and embarks on a brief and passionate relationship with him. Things are brought to a horrible halt when Nabokov catches sight of her being sexually assaulted by a jealous customer (Martin McCormick) and misinterprets the situation. He walks out in a blind rage, leaving Butterfly alone, miserable and pregnant.

Photo Credit: Ramesh Meyyappan/Esplanade

Central to the production is the motif of the butterfly, that graceful and delicate creature whose life can be so easily be snatched away. In an arresting sequence, Nabokov goes through the motions of preserving a butterfly he has just caught by dipping it in liquid, forcing it down and carefully piercing its wings and thorax onto a stand. When Butterfly is assaulted by the customer and finally capitulates to him, her actions mimic those of the butterfly, a creature whose joyous flutter has been irrevocably stilled.

Indeed, there is a bitter irony in the idea that Butterfly, a kite-maker who creates beautiful objects to be let loose into the sky, is drawn towards Nabokov, whose passion sees him hunting down wild butterflies and immortalising them in jars. The butterfly which Nabokov preserves and hands to Butterfly early in the play is an apt symbol of how Butterfly herself is, in some ways, a living insect, framed and boxed in by her dependence on him.  One is reminded of the destructive power of love and how women in particular are consumed, both physically and emotionally, by their love for men. Smith, in a remarkable physical theatre debut, conveys the pain and isolation of  a woman whose life has been turned upside down with tremendous empathy.

Photo Credit: Ramesh Meyyappan/Esplanade

Butterfly marks Meyyappan’s first foray into puppetry and there is excellent work by Meyyappan and McCormick in manipulating the puppets as they bring Butterfly’s child to life, conveying the playfulness and delight of an infant romping around. The puppets also feature in dream sequences where a sleeping Butterfly dreams of a world where her child and her lover finally reunite. One cannot deny the tremendous degree of skill involved in working with the puppets while never compromising on the emotional arc of the narrative and it is a credit to the entire production team for bringing a true sense of theatrical magic to the performance by introducing something so simple. Kudos also to the lighting and sound designers for creating an evocative aural and visual landscape which complements the action on stage.

If I did have a cavil about this thoughtful and otherwise beautifully executed production, it was in wishing for a more intimate acting space where the audience could truly be up close to the performers and part of their world. It can be difficult to appreciate the puppet work from a distance and if the scores of craning necks in the packed Esplanade Theatre Studio were any indication, almost everyone wanted to catch every last physical flourish.

The Crystalwords score: 3.5/5


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