‘We know what we are, but know not what we may be’ Act IV, Scene V, Hamlet
In the ghostly underbelly of Temple-Meads station, the audience is separated from the actors by a stage covered in mud. With the pulsating music reverberating through the tunnelled alcoves, the setting could not be more apt. Over the course of play, Dramsoc’s Butterfly, playing at the Loco Klub, unearths forgotten queer histories from Bristol and beyond, erupting them into the present moment, as asserted by the opening line: ‘It’s 7:31pm on the 5th March 2019’. The play begins with a school girl digging underground to find any remnant of history that might echo her own experience, and through her exploration we hear eight stories of queer suppression and liberation. They range across history: from an Elizabethan cross-dresser to a homosexual MP in modern day Bristol. This journey across time periods is framed with varying depths of perspectives, with stories which are as infamous and wide-reaching as the Stonewall riots in New York, to those as intimate as the experience of a Muslim woman struggling to reconcile her religious and sexual identity in the backdrop of a Stokes Croft café. What all the people in these stories have in common is a refusal to remain unheard and a refusal to be forced underground.
In a series of monologues, the characters express their most secret histories to a captivated audience. We are never given a character’s full story at once, which denies the audience any experience of boredom as one story is stopped short to be quickly interrupted by another. Through this, Butterfly presents several seemingly disparate experiences as one whole interconnected narrative, creating a cross-cultural and temporally transcendent sense of solidarity amongst the queer community. The performance is at once deeply moving and yet extremely funny. Listening to an Elizabethan lady exclaim that she’s ‘off for a wank’, or a navy soldier jesting that a man on the front row ‘loves a tease’ provides a comforting catharsis for the more intense and poignant moments of the performance. The romance between a victim of domestic abuse and a woman from her church begins as one of tragedy and alienation, yet it is refreshing to see that these women are afforded a happy ending, marrying each other on the day of Pride some years later.
The play is skilfully choreographed, with many characters’ pieces of dialogue complemented with offstage audio cues to express their stories. A stand-out moment of the performance involved ‘Sherry’, the navy soldier-cum-drag queen aboard the HMS Queensborough, lip-syncing for her life to the likes of ‘Steps’ and ‘La Roux’, accompanied by claps and cheers from the ecstatic audience. The play culminates in a portrayal of the 1969 raid of the Stonewall Inn in New York which catalysed the eponymous riots, whereby every character is onstage describing their own experience in a cacophony of collective voices. The indignant rebellion and triumphant sense of unity generated by the characters within The Stonewall Inn is infectious. It effectively captures the momentous nature of this moment which helped transform the public queer experience to such an extent that that the reverberations of this ‘butterfly effect’ are still being felt today. ‘Can you feel that’, one actor repeats, ‘it’s electric’. Indeed, with Butterfly, director Sam Jones and his cast seamlessly combine monologues with dance, poetry and music to create an electrifying and immersive theatre experience, unearthing the underground Queer realities that deserve to be heard.