Theatre review: Ramesh Meyyappan's Butterfly channels both beauty and pain

The story of Madame Butterfly has been the subject of many an adaptation - and subversion. Composer Giacomo Puccini would transform the original short story (circa 1898) into his lush opera and, decades later, American playwright David Henry Hwang would interrogate themes of sexuality and gender identity with his play M. Butterfly.

Singapore-born, Scotland-based theatre artist Ramesh Meyyappan has distilled the tragic story of Butterfly into an intimate showcase of visual theatre that is equal parts gorgeous and gutting.

It is the final instalment of this year's Studios season at the Esplanade, and staged at its Theatre Studio. This is not the story of a submissive woman spurned, but an exploration of womanhood and the trauma of sexual violence.

Gone are the naval officer Pinkerton, the Japanese prince Yamadori and the titular geisha Cho-Cho-San. In their place, there is a relationship triangle of sorts involving Butterfly, a kite-maker (Ashley Smith), Nabokov (named for the Russian novelist, who was an amateur lepidopterist, one who studies moths and butterflies), a butterfly catcher (Meyyappan), and an unnamed customer at the kite shop (Martin McCormick). As they flit through stages of love, pain and mourning, a delicately-realised fantasy world emerges from the ashes of reality.

It is clear that Meyyappan, who wrote and directed the work, strives to keep the piece hard-hitting but respectful. He does not pull its punches, but never treats the material maliciously or lightly. There are clear divisions between healthy, loving intimacy, and how that can be distorted into the ugliness of abuse both physical and emotional.

My concerns with the work stem from a less visible realm. Butterfly constantly runs the danger of romanticising the aftermath of sexual violence just as the original writer of the short story, John Luther Long (and later composer Giacomo Puccini), have romanticised the submissiveness of the "Oriental woman".

As a female viewer of the work, I was occasionally uncomfortable with what I perceived to be Butterfly's docility and resignation, but it is likely that these views are coloured by my own views of what 'womanhood' ought to be. I suppose my difficulties with the work lie in the general blankness of Butterfly's character, she comes across to me as a vague character apart from her attachments to others: her 'child', her lover, and her attacker. Yes, she is a whimsical kite maker - but I wish she had been more than that.

But despite these personal dissatisfactions about the conclusion of Butterfly's story (the storytelling does feel like it runs out of air in the play's final moments), Meyyappan does some very moving work in portraying the vulnerability of a woman in Butterfly's position, and the heartrending fallout of sexual violence. He also fleshes out the idea that the violation of a woman's body and self can take place in many forms, using the metaphor of the butterfly catcher choloforming and later killing his butterflies to preserve them as a quiet demonstration of possessiveness and objectification. The imagery is heavy-handed, but it works within the context of this cautionary tale.

The movement work here is carefully choreographed and very precise, as is a trademark of all of Meyyappan's work. There is not a single gesture out of place. As it is, kites and butterflies are both objects of freedom and fragility, and Butterfly blends both symbols - wings and paper are easily torn and not easily fixed, just as trust is almost impossible to rebuild once destroyed.

The most stunning imagery takes shape when her world begins to shift between fantasy and reality. The ensemble of actors produces some masterful puppetry work that compels you to hold your breath and lean forward in your seat as it unfolds. There are some striking Bunraku influences, including the tiny but exquisitely crafted puppets that traverse the curve of her body as she sleeps.

There are many other moments of pure visual magic that are difficult to capture in words - the dance of light that speckles the stage can turn a scene from warm to devastating in a single instant - a testament to the power of the creative team's visual storytelling.

Perhaps sometimes it is only from great darkness that we can perceive great beauty.

Follow Corrie Tan on Twitter @CorrieTan

Tickets to Butterfly are sold out.

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