A swallow told me the light of the stars is growing dim.’ An odd play, this. The young Lorca, heady with Symbolism, wrote about a community of insects whose innocence is broken by the impossible love of a cockroach for a butterfly. A ballet dancer played the butterfly, an iconic Cuban actress played the cockroach, and the play was laughed off the stage. In later years, Lorca would only ever revive it as a puppet-show.
There is much of the puppet-show about this production. Staged in Magdalen’s very own secret garden, it is visually gorgeous and cartoonishly acted. You feel that you are watching The Just So Stories in the act of being written, or perhaps that you have stumbled upon Bottom the Weaver rehearsing Pyramus and Thisbe.
The show has a fey beauty. The Japanesque costumes are sumptuous, and the body-acting is exaggerated in an attractive way. Best of all is the fickle moonlight of Lorca’s poetry. The script is a pastoral poem full of glittering conceits and troubling shadows. This may be an idyll, but it is always on the verge of nightmare.
The acting, on the other hand, is poor. Joseph O’Hara has clearly got his actors to affect a very faux-naif style, but, with a few honourable exceptions, they cannot pull it off. It is more leaden than ironic. The love-struck girl shows she is love-struck by heaving stagy sighs; the distracted poet simply stares into space. The drunken scorpion is best suited to the operatic style of the performance, but on the whole the effect is am-dram Gilbert and Sullivan.
Ultimately, watching this play is like talking to a beautiful but vapid woman. You find yourself fascinated by her tricks of gesture, the sheen of her dress, but eventually the empty space behind her eyes becomes disconcerting. If you want wit and drama, you’ll find it elsewhere. But if you fancy a touch of opiate romance on a warm May evening beneath the fruit trees, lie back among the poppies and let the butterfly work her magic.