BWW Review: MADAM BUTTERFLY, King's Head Theatre

The wonderful thing about fringe theatre is the variety and quality of what can be produced in a tiny space, with very little budget. Creativity is key to make an audience return to what is essentially the back room of a pub with slightly uncomfortable seating. Madam Butterfly is the latest creative offering from the King's Head Theatre, which has a well-known reputation for producing innovative and unique shows in just such a room.

Set in modern day Japan, Butterfly meets and marries Pinkerton, an American Naval officer, who abandons her, returning years later with an American wife. Upon discovering Butterfly had their child in his absence, he resolves to take the child away with him and his new wife. Butterfly, devastated at her situation, gives up her child and commits suicide.

Director Paul Higgins has brought the story into the world of Japanese amine and manga comics. Butterfly is not a geisha but works in a Maid Cafe, serving customers dressed as a Harijuku girl. In many ways, this is a very logical adaption: Pinkerton is essentially a sexual predator, taking advantage of the youthful and innocent Butterfly.

Higgins has made his version of Pinkerton more louche and sleazy, downing Jack Daniels and leering at the 15-year-old Butterfly. The undercurrents of sexual exploitation in the story are heightened by Butterfly's innocent attitude, but also her schoolgirl outfit and long pink plaits. As she declares how much she wants to be loved, it is uncomfortable to watch.

What are less successful are the stereotypes Higgins throws in around Japanese culture. Butterfly, despite being supposedly destitute after Pinkerton leaves, listens to her iPod and clutches a large Hello Kitty toy. The constant bowing by Butterfly and her maid Suzuki also seems disingenuous and contrived.

With a rotating cast, Stephanie Edwards played Butterfly on press night. She is the best performer by far and carries the show with a clear and powerful soprano. Her rendition of the iconic "One Fine Day" has wonderful projection and diction. There is a beautiful sorrow in her voice as she longs for her husband to return.

Arthur Swan's Pinkerton is nicely slimy and unlikeable, but any shame that he feels when he returns to Butterfly is not convincing. His vocal projection is lacking in some parts and his tenor is not a match for Edwards' powerful soprano, so the love duet is less impressive than it should be.

David Jones and Holly-Marie Bingham are able support as American Consul Sharpless and maid Suzuki. They both bring empathy to the characters, with Bingham, in particular, showing moments of lovely vocal control and pathos.

Amanda Holden's translation is clear and makes the story easy to follow for those unfamiliar with it. Musically, the use of just a piano and cello is largely successful, but there are points where the majesty of Puccini's score is missing. The "Humming Chorus" is markedly shortened, with no discernable harmonies and is so quiet it is more mumbling than humming.

Higgins cuts out subplots such as Butterfly's relatives and her princely suitor, which speeds up the production to under two hours. This does, however, remove some of the drama of the story and it feels slightly rushed.

In such a small space, the production looks very impressive, mainly down to the innovative lighting panels designed by Nic Farman. They start as the bright neon background to the Maid Cafe, often changing colour, then revert to more traditional Shoji screens in Butterfly's house.

This is an innovative take on Puccini's masterpiece with some good performances. Its radical setting and curtailed length will appeal to some, but certainly not everyone.

Madam Butterfly is at King's Head Theatre until 18 March

Photo Credit: Christopher Tribble



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