[Review:] NOTHING IN A BUTTERFLY, Omnibus Theatre, London.
NB: In this performance, actor Ric Renton plays a representation of his past self. Therefore, I must make this distinction: any mentions in this review of 'Ric Renton' or 'Renton' refer to the actor himself, whereas mentions of 'Ric' refer to the character, Ric within this play.
This is a rather chaotic performance. It appears that the creatives intended to make it a quick-paced, dynamic and energised one, with its fragmented narrative, multiroling and a huge mix of 'physical theatre' and metatheatrical techniques. However, the result is a sheer lack of consistency in voice, rhythm, performer-audience relationship and aesthetic.
I shall start with physical movement. Performers, whilst energised and invigorated when performing character-based work, showing good transformativity and range, lack a considerable degree of corporeal tension and vigour, which is required to drive physical movements and to convey a sense of deliberateness and autonomy. Currently, the performers seem to be going through the various motions required of them without a perceptible personal relationship to the movements they are making, which would, indeed, be perceptible if this tension and vigour were successfully incorporated. This is most problematic when I consider the more extreme movements repeated by Ric Renton (playing Ric), symbolic of either his character's breakdowns or his beating up other characters. Renton inhibits his kicks prematurely, and his punches lack force and impetus, the angularity of these undercutting punches reminiscent more of formalised punching bag practice than beating up another person. The repetition of these movements also fictionalises them too distinctly into a rehearsed repertoire. This needs to be addressed.
I mentioned that the performers enacted well their character-based work, but these characters were slightly more caricatural than naturalistic. To have such caricatures is a good decision as regards the pacing of this text that rather rushes through its story's various locations and contexts. With such caricatures, we can immediately understand and identify the characters we are presented and their circumstances, aided by marks in dialogue such as one of Marième Diouf's characters announcing herself as the 'school counsellor' at the beginning of her scene. However, as useful as this method is, there is a tendency among the actors to overexaggerate certain characteristics, making these caricatures more comedic than neutral as they should be. To exemplify, I shall remain with Diouf: in an early scene where a group of adults discuss Ric's behaviour, conspiring that he is selling drugs in school, Diouf's expressivity is garish, overstated. Miming digging morsels out of her teeth, embellishing her role with a strong African accent shared by none of her other characters, idiosyncratic tuts, wide-eyed gasps and shakes of the head, rather than breathing life and humanity into her character, she performs the external impression of one, as do the other performers in this scene. From Olivia Onyehara's shocked and disbelieving profile to Michael Jinks's character's quirky fixation upon uttering a vast list of existing drugs, these caricatures subtract from the naturalistic integrity and, most importantly, the relatability of this scene.
The reason why this becomes such a significant issue surfaces when we realise that the entire play consists of such quirky caricatures and fleeting imagery. With this realisation comes another: having little or no depth whatsoever, these characters generate for this performance an overall sense of superficiality, of oversimplicity, of shallowness. This allows for the danger of the audience not being able to bond, connect or identify with the characters, as well as for a sense of inaction and monotony, despite the rapid succession of events and circumstances. I should also use this scene to exemplify another issue: pacing. The actors immediately start delivering their lines in this scene, without allowing us to settle into its tense and quiet atmosphere. This lack of timing further compromises any realism and emotional forces in this scene.
This brings me on to aesthetics. Sticking with this exemplary scene involving these three performers, it is worth noting its topography: a diagonal line of chairs lit by a narrow, slanting rectangular sidelight. This is a thrust stage, meaning that this diagonal alignment of the chairs, which are also placed far Stage Left, obscures the view of a great number of the Stage Right audience. This effect occurs repeatedly throughout the performance, when Jinks's character slides the dictionary to Renton's, for example, or when Renton's offers the drugs in his pocket to Onyehara's. The creatives have not considered topography well at all in this performance. I mentioned this sidelight above, and lighting is certainly a key element in generating this performance's 'aesthetic'. The number of lighting cues, however, is simply colossal. Lighting states change with almost every scene and, for the majority of the performance, are different every time. Whilst there is a sense of continuity with the use of 'natural' lighting, the shapes of the spots, from rectangular to faded circles, the castings or omissions of shadows, and, most importantly, this frequency with which they are changed mean that there is no established and coherent lighting design for this performance. We are unable to settle into the atmosphere of any given scene, for it will too quickly change before we can.
Sound design, however, is particularly consistent. It has a particularly foreign effect, making use of an abstract library that communicates relatable, whimsical concepts and applying them well to those taking place on stage. I think, for example, to the sound of fluttering birds when this aforementioned dictionary is slid across the floor, or to the snapping sounds we hear whilst Ric is restrained for the stapling of his skull-exposing wound. I particularly like this library of disembodying and alienating, seemingly irrelevant sounds that draw from visceral associations, but disembodiment is yet another theme that makes this performance's material somewhat inaccessible. In this way, this sound design becomes yet another means of disrupting the narrative and our reading of it, supplementing it with yet another conceptual and artistic layer that we must break through in order to understand the material The use of microphones is another example of this theme of disembodiment, disembodying the actor's, and the character's, voice from their body, which is an effect that is rather needless in this performance.
I do understand the significance of and reasoning behind this theme of disembodiment, and I do think it could be useful for this performance. However, currently, its misuse dampens the efficacy of this performance and acts against the narrative, as opposed to complementing it. It would be beneficial perhaps to consider having Ric continue to be represented rather naturalistically as we admittedly find him in certain scenes [but only an insufficient few], whilst the other characters are consistently caricatural, alienating and foreign. For this, Renton must remain on stage for the entirety of the performance’s duration so that we are reminded of the effect the abstract material is having upon him but must also remain in constant contact with the tempos of the other performers until the resolution at the end. As it stands, it is easy to think of his character as separate from the things that happen to him. I would also recommend when actors speak as though the angels and the devils on his shoulders, representative of the [mis]guiding voices of consciousness in his head, that this be an address type aimed exclusively at Ric alone. Namely, towards the end of the performance during the funeral, we see Diouf speaking in this way to Jinks’s character and not Renton’s, moving unseen by the others. This confuses the significance of these voices and takes the focus off of our main character; we stop experiencing the material through his perspective altogether, and this is most detrimental to our reading of the performance’s overall context and of his character. I should also note here that this rather clichéd and unoriginal technique is far too overused in this performance.
It seems that the creatives have tried every possible means of creative expression, without really considering their overall cohesiveness, i.e. how all of these creative elements and styles come together to create one coherent performance. Sitting amongst audience members and addressing lines to them is yet another example of this lack of stylistic congruity. Invading the audience's territory and directly interacting with them can only remove an audience from a performance intellectually and emotionally, forcing them merely to become self-conscious, aware of themselves and the Others with which they share the space, of the space in general, and of the artificiality of the art of theatre itself and its form. This is a needless and subtractive incorporation of metatheatricality here.
Overall, this is a promising and poignant text, but its staging here is simply confused and unrefined in its eclecticism. The underlying narrative is both resonant and emotional, but the overly fragmented style, overdressed with clashing theatrical techniques means that we lose its voice amongst an excessive stylisation. Performers are perceptibly confident and vitalised, talented, but currently lack the required skill to infuse the excessive repertoire of physical movements with the appropriate impeti and legibility.