Ben Caplan was inspired to direct a stage version of John Fowles’s 1963 novel, about a butterfly collector who imprisons a girl in his cellar, after reading an article about Natascha Kampusch, the Austrian girl who was kidnapped and held prisoner for eight years by Wolfgang Priklopil. Her story has eerie parallels to the one in the book and, indeed, the novel has been cited as an influence in a number of similar crimes.
The production began life on last year’s Edinburgh fringe, where it was staged at the Underbelly, a suitably murky space for a two-hander which takes place entirely in a claustrophobic cellar room. It is now being staged in the smaller of the Arcola’s two studios, again a space to which the story is well suited.
In both book and stage play, Frederick, the collector of the title, is obsessed with a girl called Miranda, an art student. So he chloroforms her, bundles her into a van and imprisons her in his remote country house (bought, in Mark Healey’s modernised adaptation, following a lottery win, though in the novel, Frederick’s money came via a win on the pools). Frederick wants Miranda to be comfortable, so he has bought her clothes, books, a bed: everything that a ‘guest’ might need or want, and he hopes that, in time, she will come to know him, to care for him even.
Caplan draws superb performances from his two actors. As Frederick, Mark Fleischmann is frighteningly amiable, truly unaware that what he is doing is in any way wrong. There is an almost sympathetic quality about his desperate desire to please her and to have her understand and maybe even love him, but there is a sinister edge to him, the sense he might turn at any time and reveal an ugly, violent side.
Rosalind Drury, fresh out of drama school, gives a very impressive performance as Miranda, her character veering plausibly between terror and rage at her predicament. Miranda is not submissive prisoner. Though Frederick may be the one holding her against her will, she recognises that she has a degree of power over him and uses it. In his taut production, Caplan charts the shifting dynamics of their relationship, the small victories, their constant battle of wills. It is a deliciously tense production, its grip tightening towards the end, (though it is never quite as visceral and unsettling as something like Dennis Kelly’s similarly themed After The End). There is even a measure of humour, especially in the earlier scenes, though inevitably the mood darkens as things progress.
Beck Rainford’s set, peppered with framed and mounted butterflies, underlines the fact that Miranda is just another pretty thing for Frederick to study. But, other than that, the play offers little insight into what made Frederick the way he is. Many people harbour crushes and worry that the object of their affection won’t feel the same way about them; few view chloroform and captivity as the answer. But Frederick sees what he is doing as entirely reasonable and posits that, if more people had the funds and the space, it would happen more often. It is his inability to grasp the horror of his actions that makes him truly frightening.