Debates about the death penalty tend to focus, unsurprisingly, on the moral rights and wrongs of taking a life for a life. Less, perhaps, is known about the dehumanising conditions in which condemned prisoners must await their fate – often for years, or even decades. Tormented Casserole’s two-hander Gilded Butterflies, devised by the company and directed by Kathryn Papworth-Smith, sets out to remedy that. Based on the true account of death row survivor Sunny Jacobs, the play paints a brutal picture of what everyday life is like in solitary confinement, and in doing so it also offers us a poignant glimpse at the lengths to which the human spirit will go to survive, even in unimaginably bleak circumstances.
Maggie (Francesca McCrohon) is a young woman who spends her days alone in her prison cell in Florida. It’s been a year since she saw or spoke to anyone besides her guards and her lawyer, but she keeps herself upbeat by painting, writing daily letters to her husband, and dreaming of what she’ll do when her lawyer gets her out. Then one day she gets a new neighbour (Samantha Pain) – but having company may not be quite the blessing she expected, and Maggie soon finds herself forced to face up to some devastating truths about what she’s done, and where she might be headed.
Samantha Pain plays three roles: the nameless prisoner next door, Maggie’s lawyer and her sister Lauren. Each of these is not so much a character in their own right as a vehicle to shed a little new light on Maggie’s situation, and it’s Francesca McCrohon who steals the show throughout. Smiley, chatty, kind: in any other circumstances Maggie’s the kind of person you can imagine yourself getting along with. Both the script and McCrohon’s performance draw us in, and for at least the first half of the play we even find ourselves sharing a little of her bright-eyed optimism about the state of her appeals.
And then we find out what brought Maggie to death row, and the tone of the play shifts in a much darker direction. Her dreams for the future are exposed as just that – dreams – and we realise what we’re seeing is a woman desperately battling to hold on to who she is against a system that’s determined to steal every last scrap of humanity from her, before finally ending her life. The lack of human contact; the refusal to allow her the most basic of items; the fact that she’s not even allowed to attend her own court hearings to plead her case; each new detail is one more reminder of how the American justice system views prisoners as less than human, a problem to be eradicated rather than addressed in any constructive way. Maggie is not innocent of the terrible crime for which she’s been convicted, but based on what we later learn of her circumstances, she’s not wholly guilty either – a subtle difference that a black and white system like the death penalty completely fails to take into account.
The play is simply staged; given the nature of the story, visually there’s not a lot to look at except a static set – consisting of two cells outlined on the ground, each with a metal bed and not much else – which helps to emphasise the monotony of Maggie’s daily existence. At each scene transition, white noise sound effects and abrupt lighting changes from Naomi Baldwin create an oppressive atmosphere that no amount of chatter can quite dissipate.
Gilded Butterflies is a thought-provoking and moving piece that highlights the urgent need for a change in policy and attitudes. The story may be set on death row, but the talking points it raises – specifically around mental health and the importance of rehabilitation rather than punishment – can be just as easily applied to justice systems around the world, including that of the UK. And if the play happens to also make you angry about the insanity of the death penalty – well, that’s an added bonus.
Gilded Butterflies is at The Hope Theatre until 24th November.
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