Theatre in Wales

Plays and dance productions in Wales since 1982...

Butterfly by Ian Rowlands
First presented in 2006 by Theatr y Byd
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BUTTERFLY is a play about art and life, and their appropriation by the unscrupulous; a reflection of society’s increasing immunity to pure emotion, instead seeking personal satisfaction through retaliation and acquisition.  A pitch-black comedy featuring a cast of three, the play introduces an established art critic and collector who is no longer moved by beauty. Desperate to feel, to live, he has become a vampire who sucks the souls of young artists from their canvasses, destroying them out of spite. When he is picked up by a young man at a gallery opening, a story of seduction and revenge unfolds.

   There are 5 reviews of Theatr y Byd's Butterfly in our database:
Butterfly by Ian Rowlands
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The Riverfront, Newport
Butterfly is a bitterly dark comedy in which an established art critic, played by Ian Saynor, is confronted by the ghosts which have destroyed his ability to appreciate beauty.

The play revolves around his relationship with two youths – his ex-lover, played by Alison John, and his new conquest, played by Sam Miller.

The complex and provocative relationship between the three is exquisitely crafted by writer Ian Rowlands, in this his first play for five years.

The actors rhythmically pace the stage, creating a tightly held tension as they fight to resolve their fury with each other and the unfairness of life.

Saynor gives a dazzling performance, with the sharp poetic words slipping from his tongue like acid from his critic’s pen. His cynical wit and his spite contrast pleasingly with the youth and raw anger of his lovers.

Both Miller and John are convincing, bringing a passion to their roles which is exhilarating to watch.

This is a thoroughly Welsh production which benefits from a set by installation artist Tim Davies and a specially written song by Amy Wadge.

Theatr Y Byd creates a haunting tale of seduction, revenge and regret which will linger in the memory.

Butterfly will be at the Haliwell Theatre in Carmarthen on March 15th, Theatr Brycheiniog in Brecon on March 16th, Clwyd Theatr Cymru in Mold on March 17th, Galeri in Caernarfon on the 18th and at Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff from March 21st to 25th and March 28th to April 1st.
South Wales Argus
A sensory smorgasbord of creativity
Butterfly by Ian Rowlands
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The Riverfront, Newport
Contemporary theatre? Discuss. Don’t look at me like that; I know what you’re thinking. Contemporary theatre is nothing more than a pile of pretentious old piffle, right? Exactly. Me, too. And, in fairness, we’re not entirely wrong. A lot of current theatre seems to subscribe to the Gustave Flaubert dictum “Anything becomes interesting if you look at it long enough”, inasmuch as dramatists believe even the banal and the bland are morphed by the magic of the stage into something utterly fascinating and worthy of scrutiny, which sometimes is patently untrue. Some subjects remain banal and bland no matter how much attention is chucked at them. To say the majority of zeitgeistian stage drama doesn’t work is like saying: “This brick doesn’t swim.” So if you want to debunk this preconception then a good jumping-off point is Ian Rowlands’ new production.

Butterfly is a play that pivots around an established art critic who when faced with the loss of his ability to be touched by the beauty of art becomes a vampire who sucks the souls of young artists from their canvasses. Admittedly, this plot-pitch has ‘FAILURE’ tattooed all over it, but due to the writing and its gutsy execution it’s all perfectly pulled-off. This is Rowlands’ first work for five years but there are no signs of rust; the dialogue ebbs and flows with an artful naturalness and purpose. As the flawed critic, Ian Saynor’s performance has an internal tempo that builds and twists and draws the audience in like co-conspirators. Alison John (as the Butterfly of the title) and Sam Miller (who plays the Boy with indecent, insouciant sexiness) complete this three-hander’s line-up and are quietly compelling and memorably haunting, adding to the play’s unique atmospheric beat.

Actually, to call Butterfly a play is something of a misnomer. With music by the acclaimed Amy Wadge and an art installation by the equally lauded Tim Davies, it’s more a sensory smorgasbord of creativity; it really is an event. In all honesty, I expected to hate this production but it comprehensively shot down my jaundiced scepticism. A provocative and evocative piece of postmodern theatre.
Jason Jones
A tragic tale of desire and loneliness
Butterfly by Ian Rowlands
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Chapter Arts Centre Cardiiff
Like the insect that lends its name, this play draws your eyes to its splendour like a moth to a flame. A play in which a frustrated art critic transforms himself into a vampire, sucking the souls of young artists from their canvasses hardly seeps allurement. However, this exquisitely dark comedy soon suppressed any negative expectations as the beautifully poetic words began to flow.

The simplicity of Tim Davies’ installation provides a perfect space for the actors, who utilize it competently, circling each other in an atmosphere of desperate frustration. The precise positioning of certain aspects of the set illustrates the critic’s obsessive need for control whilst the bleak colours used reflect the wretched coldness of his dispirited heart. In addition, the purity of Amy Wadge’s accompanying music fills the theatre with an air of calm encasing the frantic world of anger and pain on stage.

Ian Saynor delivers an absorbing performance as the troubled critic, his harsh yet lyrical words falling like pins onto the cushion of the audience. A man without definition he uses language full of passion to describe his lust for the visual, yearning for its return like a lost lover. Uncomfortable within his own skin he looks to others for the answers to his unattainable desires, dissecting their thoughts like a ravenous bird of pray. The intensity of this perfectly executed performance fused my attention to this wonderfully tragic character.

Sam Miller gives a well-rounded portrayal as the Boy, a character tortured by loss, blinded by emotion and desperate for revenge. Slow to expose the true rawness of this character, Miller comes into his own as his relation to the Butterfly is revealed. With a talent still developing this was a solid performance that exposed the great potential of this young actor. Alison John as the young butterfly gives a haunting portrayal of a lost soul, living through the minds of those left behind. I was nervous with her entrance that the performance might drift into melodrama, but John showed maturity and perceptiveness in her interpretation. The passion between these two characters was at times electric, with each breath, the audience feeling the intensity brush pass their faces.

Ian Rowland’s first work for five years is both harsh and evocative, at times making you feel wounded as the characters batter you with their metaphoric weapons. Though it’s contemporary features cannot and should not be denied, this is a play that when stripped bare is a tragic tale of desire and loneliness that captures the audience like it’s own butterfly in a jar.

Amy Stackhouse
Butterfly by Ian Rowlands
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Chapter Arts Centre Cardiff
Butterfly is a beautiful play, at times delicate like the brush of a butterfly’s wing, at other times haunting and towards the end, has us on the edge of our seats with excitement. The clarity and flow of Ian Rowlands’ poetry is extremely intoxicating. And has the potential to bubble like champagne. Unusually for Rowlands this is a play not set in Wales. Not that his Welsh plays are in any way bound by their setting. Here, by focusing on the lives of three intense and complex people, living through their own personal trauma, he reveals and questions weaknesses that lie at the heart of humanity and may well undermine the progress of our civilisation. – Isn’t that what all good plays are about?

With each play we are able to celebrate the writer’s consummate artistic creativity but it is his command of the craft of playwriting that captivates here. An older man has just brought a younger man back to his elegant home for a night of passion but do they jump straight into bed? No. As they seductively circle one another they dazzle us with a totally captivating discourse on the nature of modern art and the nature of beauty with shafts of Rowlands’ wry humour shooting in, all the while.

The man is an art critic, a near perfect performance by Ian Saynor, particular in more emotional and sensitive moments towards the end of the play, where we become gripped by the power of his slowly breaking endurance. But to begin with he is drinking wine and preparing for love with Boy, sturdily played by Sam Miller. Sam is bewildered by the lack of paintings on the art critic’s wall. The critic hints that earlier circumstances have drained him of his ability to appreciate the beauty in works of art and that he has despatched all his paintings, bubble-wrapped into store. What does intrigue the boy is the display of wing-outstretched butterflies around the room, part of the atmospheric art installation of Tim Davies. The critic now prefers “dead flying things” to vital modern works of art around him.

The magic of the play intensifies as the real butterfly emerges, Alison John looking colourful and attractive. The boy can see her clearly. We become aware of a close bond between them, the critic feels her presence but is unable to see her. Chris Morgan directs and choreographs deftly, they circle, and again the atmosphere is glistened by the music and haunting voice of Amy Wadge. The play ends. Some wrongs have been righted - maybe and some remain but we have all been totally engaged. However the impact of play is much stronger than in this production. The opening scenes needed more charisma and light. The characters of Boy and Butterfly need to be more clearly drawn and played with greater strength and conviction. There was an appreciation of the of the subscript but it could have done with a bit deeper understanding and commitment.
Michael Kelligan
A Study in Deception
Butterfly by Ian Rowlands
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Chapter Arts Centre Cardiff
“Those who can’t, criticise.”

So says the art critic in Ian Rowlands’ new play, Butterfly. The balance of power between those who do, and those who review, is a perilous one; the one has the talent, the other the means to make or break with a few words in the right ear. Neither comes off particularly well in the end.

Rowlands’ play claims to “deal with art, life and the appropriation of both by the unscrupulous.” The trouble is, everybody on stage seems unscrupulous at some point, so it’s hard to know where to place your sympathies. None of the characters are trustworthy: the verbose art critic whose whole persona is falsely based on an Oxford education (the poly, it turns out, not the uni) and whose reviews aim to damage for the wrong reasons; the Boy who picks him up at a gallery (gay or not?); Butterfly — the ghost of an artist who might be real, might be imagined.

The critic (Ian Saynor) is a man ruined by his love for Butterfly, an artist whose youth and beauty captured him as much as her talent. She takes up with him, enjoys his patronage — loves him, even — but eventually leaves for younger and prettier shores. He sets about destroying her career with vicious words and as a result she commits suicide, leaving him bereft of feeling — he literally cannot experience beauty, no matter how much he can appreciate it. The Boy appears at first to be an empty “beauty” without many words... but he is actually Butterfly’s husband, set on revenge. It turns out he has plenty of words and a murderous intent to boot. Butterfly herself is either a figment of a grieving mind or the real embodiment of beauty. She’s also a betrayer, a user, and not even necessarily that good an artist — it’s left deliberately opaque.
I might have had more sympathy for the character of Butterfly (in fact, I was probably supposed to, though I’m still not sure) if it hadn’t been for Ian Saynor’s turn as the critic. Saynor simply soaked up all the attention. He delivered Rowlands’ words with an evenness of humour, pity and spite that left no room for the other characters. He was the very meaning of experience versus the gaucheness of Butterfly and Boy.

It’s no surprise that the younger actors struggled against Saynor’s deft performance. The Boy, (Sam Miller), is supposed to be an “incubus”, but the word incubus suggests something mercurial, lithe — he simply wasn’t. While Saynor was fleet of foot across the stage, Miller seemed rooted to the spot. He had very little to say in the first half, which meant his barked responses gave him nowhere to go, no way to impress. Towards the second half, Miller had more to work with and did better and, improbably, seemed more the incubus in his underpants (no, really).

Alison John as Butterfly suffered from the same rigidity; for a character who is the essence of airy beauty, she hardly fluttered. Neither of them had the voice modulation that makes it comfortable to listen to, and since the play is all words and no action (and barely anything else, either) the sound of the lines is extremely important. I bought a copy of the play beforehand, and the lines played better in my head. In fact, it’s an enjoyable read with truly funny moments and some nice criticisms of modern art that will find an echo with many people. As the critic says in a tired voice: “As if we haven’t seen two women sew their nipples together before; and with perter breasts! Eh?” or a personal favourite “...the shit artists write to justify themselves. It’s an insult to literacy. Artists should be banned from writing anything.” Of course, you’re not necessarily supposed to agree with the critic, because he’s a nasty piece of work who uses beauty and never creates it; who collects it like butterflies pinned to a canvas, little scraps of artistic soul caught in his possession; but the fact is, you can’t help it. He’s open in his nastiness, humble and humorous about his aging charms, whereas Butterfly and Boy are closed-off, full of secrets. Self-obsessed.

Another thing that I missed from the performance and gained from the script was the real sense of ambiguity about Butterfly. She’s physically present (a little too much so on stage), but there are reasons to suppose the Boy is subconsciously making her up and it’s as much the critic’s own, desperate desire to regain a sense of beauty that leads him to believe in her. In the first half, the critic says things which the Boy uses in the second to prove Butterfly’s existence, and drops hints — “ No lizards in my wine” — which could point the Boy in the direction of the critic’s favourite painter, Caravaggio. But everything is untrustworthy, unreliable.

Butterfly does not stand up as a play about beauty, but rather as a study in deception. The deception of the word, whether it be from the critic or the artist. All three characters have deceived in some way, but it’s the critic who, in the end, has the truest word. He realises that his one chance of creating beauty lay in the baby that Butterfly had aborted, and his feelings are real and painful. He may be described as “a vampire” in the play’s blurb, but the critic is the one character with the most to give. He is an utterly real, believable creation.

But don’t believe me — because I’m one of those who can’t do, who just criticises.

Theatr y Byd’s production of Butterfly by Ian Rowlands, artistic director, Chris Morgan, was at Chapter Arts Centre, Cardiff, from 21-25 March.
Alex Carolan

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