The National School of Drama’s (NSD) satellite festival on 10th January 2008, at Nehru Centre in Mumbai presented a play penned by Leonard Gershe. BUTTERFLIES ARE FREE was in Chinese with English super titles. The production was from the Central Academy of Drama, Beijing and was directed by Guan Ying. The title was inspired by a passage in Charles Dickens' Bleak House: ‘I only ask to be free. The butterflies are free. Mankind will surely not deny to Harold Skimpole what it concedes to the butterflies.’ This well-known play of the seventies is more of a conventional, commercial play with huge popular appeal. The show was thoroughly enjoyed by the average audience while few left half way, not finding it representative of the country that has a rich cultural history. Originally a Broadway production figuring the legendary Gloria Swanson, the play not only ran for over 1128 shows but a couple of years later, it was turned into a film that won prestigious awards.
The plot is simple, sensitive and well structured. The characters are real and humane and the events are conceived with credibility. The love story is more of a family drama-of a mother and her grown-up son- The boy was jilted by a girl and is now staying alone. He falls in love with a free spirited hippie girl, who is an aspiring actress and doesn’t believe in marriage. On the other hand the mother of the boy is against this relationship. She discourages the girl by emotional blackmailing her against the intimacy with her son. But all’s well that ends well. The beauty is that the boy is blind but he is a talented lyricist with an uncanny sense of judging distance and moves like a normal person. This device added high drama and melodrama to the family story. The production was kind of a neat and clean, local commercial family play’s Chinese version.
The script has all the substance of typical, populist theatre with a stereotype mother-son relationship. The box set was a little awkward but the way in which the furniture was placed, facilitated the boy with hassle-free movements.
The lighting was as required and the costumes were quite well-designed. All the actors did full justice to their roles. They maintained a good pace. The movements were racy and they helped in creating a lively ambience. As the blind boy was a lyricist in the making, the sound track proved an asset to the play, making life a celebration, even in physical adversity. This was out and out a formula play.
*The writer is a senior theatre and television person who has trained under Ebrahim Alkazi at the National School of Drama (NSD). She has written for publications such as ‘The Asian Age’ and is a regular contributor to the Prithvi Theatre Newsletter (PT Notes). She also offers theatre training to students at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan and is an important critical voice for the Gujarati Theatre.