Fleshing out the characters involves interrogating their every decisionJenny Sawyer

Ben Butley (Ella Blackburn) wanders onto the stage, alone. He throws his coat onto his colleague Joey’s desk and shuffles around at his own. He picks up the phone and quickly hangs up. He turns away a student, claiming that he is too busy to teach this week. The stage brims with the silence of a man on his own, a man who has no one to speak to as a way of covering the gaps of silence between his actions.

The opening scene of Butley establishes the play as a character study, set in one room on one day, following one man who never leaves the stage. Director Will Owen explains how it was this intensity of focus which drew him to the play, the way in which it immerses its audience in the characters who are presented not with frills but with often painful honesty. The language is understated, subtle, but the lines are also dense, forcing both actors and audience to draw back and give them their own space as they explore and expose the characters. Ben Butley is a man who flits between the playful and the threatening, who one moment is despicable and the next rouses the audience’s sympathy. He is, as the cast describe it, a charismatic man who is allowed to be flawed. Even in the opening scene, what begins as a nursery-rhymed joke quickly turns into aggressive ‘straight abuse’ and then into a pathetic expression of loneliness and desperate dependence.

The intimate set-up, the squareness of the room, are captured perfectly by the space in the Corpus Playroom

This has been the greatest challenge in rehearsals, Owen tells me, as fleshing out the characters involves interrogating their every decision, the motivations behind the things they do and say which are sometimes impulsive and sometimes much more thought-out and manipulative. And it is not just Butley who needs to be unpicked in this play, but each one of the characters has something to them beyond facilitating the protagonist. There is the need to consider not just what happens onstage in front of the audience, but what goes on behind the scenes, which is so crucial to the development of the characters.

The off-stage world is so important here because the play is set in a single room, Butley and Joey’s shared office. The intimate set-up, the squareness of the room, are captured perfectly by the space in the Corpus Playroom. The dynamics of the play are defined partly by the use of this space; Ben Butley at first dominates it, taking it on as his own when he sprawls his things onto Joey’s side of the room, throwing his coat onto his colleague’s desk, sitting on it as Joey tries to work. He invades with a playfulness that becomes threatening in its persistence, humiliating Joey and driving him to the edge of his patience. The square of the Corpus Playroom and of the university office becomes a boxing ring, the site of an intense conflict of selves.


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But is this just a study of the characters in the play, or is it a more general musing on the human condition? The scene is of course a relatable one for Cambridge students, filled with literary quotes and exploring the life of lectures, tutorials, and reading lists, the tensions and conflicts arising at their most basic level from disagreements within this intellectual space. Yet these characters are not just professors and students; they are also very human. As the play goes on, each believes they are making a breakthrough with their own self, developing their characters and their tempers and their interactions, pruning themselves as individuals and learning about the world in which they live. They think they are beginning to solve the situations in which they find themselves. But Butley’s story shows that these solutions don’t work. They have not found the answers. And it is this sense of feeling you are finally right when in fact you are wrong, of believing in change when in fact all there has been is stasis, which drives this play as a study of human nature itself.

Butley is on at the Corpus Playroom, 22-26 May

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