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NYTG at the Broadway Opening of M. Butterfly
New York Theatre Guide attends Opening Night for the first-ever Broadway revival of David Henry Hwang's Tony Award-winning play M. Butterfly, directed by Julie Taymor and starring Clive Owen and Jin Ha.
The 2017-2018 Broadway season kicked into fifth gear last night as acclaimed director Julie Taymor's new production of David Henry Hwang's M. Butterfly officially opened on the Great White Way. The Cort Theatre was brimming with excitement and anticipation to see Ms. Taymor's take on Hwang's epic play, almost thirty years after it took home "Best Play" at the 1988 Tony Awards. We had the opportunity to speak to the director and playwright on the Red Carpet before the premiere and were eager to find out how this production has evolved for audiences of today, as the pair had reportedly been busy re-working the script for this 2017 revival.
"I think the play has something powerful to say and there was a love story that still needed to be mined more deeply than it was thirty years ago. David Henry Hwang was completely open to re-investigating it," Ms. Taymor tells me. "David does the re-writes, but it was a collaboration in that I made suggestions to where I thought it could really go and he was totally open."
David Henry Hwang adds: "When I wrote the original play, all I could find was one column about the actual case. It was in the New York Times on page 27. Since then, because the play was successful, so much more has come out about the actual case. It’s still not a docu-drama. There’s still a lot of stuff that wasn’t really relevant, but a few things struck us – Julie [Taymor] and myself – as ways to enrich the story. It was shocking thirty years ago in a way that I don’t think is shocking today and so it gives us an opportunity to go back in and try and look at that central relationship in a more nuanced, gender-fluid way."
Indeed, in 1988, the original production of M. Butterfly certainly made waves with its huge revelation about the gender of the mysterious Chinese opera singer Song Liling (which propelled actor B.D. Wong into stardom), so, was losing that surprise factor and "shocking" element of the play an issue in the decision to mount a revival in 2017? "Yes because I don’t think that would be as important or as shocking anymore, as it was 30 years ago," Taymor agrees. "But what is interesting here is the ride that people go on in this new version, where that’s not what it’s about. It’s not about shocking the audience. You’re taking them on this incredible journey and you’re not exactly sure of who or what they are. But it’s always about Gallimard – Clive Owen’s role – and what he feels about the person. So, you identify with him. It’s fascinating to see how – even at intermission – people come out with completely different ideas about what’s going on."
And how were the nerves holding up, moments before the curtain would rise at the Cort Theatre? Mr. Hwang spoke candidly about his emotions: "I’m feeling… Well, on Opening Nights, I’m always anxious. I definitely have jitters," he confesses. "On the other hand though, I don’t feel traumatised. When I sit at the back of the house and watch the show in previews, by the end of it I say: I like this show! I’m quite proud of it. That’s the best feeling you can have going into an opening."
Ms. Taymor shares his sentiments, but unlike Hwang, she didn't radiate an ounce of anxiety: "Oh, I’m excited!" she exclaimed. "This is rare – opening nights on Broadway – but I’m really happy and thrilled with the cast and what’s going on on stage."
At the official After Party for M Butterfly, we also had the opportunity to speak to the production's stars - Oscar nominee and Golden Globe winner Clive Owen, alongside recent NYU graduate Jin Ha. After making his Broadway debut in a revival of Harold Pinter's Old Times during the 2015-2016 Broadway season, Mr. Owen now takes on the central role of Rene Gallimard in this production. Seemingly bitten once again by the theatre bug, I ask him what keeps bringing him back to the theatre, despite a lucrative TV & Film career: "Well, that’s a good question because it took me thirteen years to come back to the theatre," he explains. "A couple of years ago, I hadn’t done a play in a long time. I started with the theatre and that’s what I loved. I felt I had to do it. It was time to go back. I kinda re-awakened why I became an actor and what got me into it in the first place. And to be honest with you, I wouldn’t have done this play, if I hadn’t done the Pinter play two years ago. That was a reminder and a re-awakening for me and then this amazing opportunity came. It’s an amazing play. She [Julie Taymor] is an amazing director. The true story that this play is based on is one of the most amazing I have ever read. It just felt too rich an opportunity to pass on."
There was a generous helping of mutual adoration in the room at the After Party and I could sense a genuine off-stage connection between Owen and his co-star Jin Ha. I was intrigued to find out how the two actors broke the ice and developed such a deeply intimate relationship with each other on stage. "It was very easy," says Owen with a gleeful smile. "Jin is a recent graduate from NYU and he’s such a fine actor already. So, it was very easy. He’s already got down the fact that actors are only ever as good as the scene they are in. Our relationship in the play – if it doesn’t work together, then we have no play. He’s a very smart, young guy and he knows that already. I’ve had a great time working with him."
Mr. Ha was also gushing when questioned about working with the British icon: "He is just the perfect scene partner. He is so enthusiastic and excited about the work. He’s excited about rehearsal, about investigation, about scene study work – essentially what I’ve just studied acting for 3 years at NYU for. His background and training is in theatre. It comes through with the work and that’s made it so much easier for me to feel comfortable in this new position and in this new world and in this enormous role. And he’s funny! He’s such a funny guy! He makes me laugh all the time. He’s been a treat." He continues to explain that the intimacy between the characters was explored "slowly, gradually and carefully" and that he took a more student-mentor approach in rehearsal. "I kinda deferred to Clive because he is the veteran," he explains. "He’s held the ropes. He’s been kind of like an older brother, although that’s a bit strange to say considering our relationship on stage, but it’s been a real pleasure to get to know him through the show."
It seems that there was a lot of love for Mr. Owen upon his return to Broadway and we at the New York Theatre Guide sincerely hope it won't be the last time we get to marvel at this actor's skill and craft on stage. Julie Taymor summed it up best earlier that evening by telling me: "He’s a real theatre animal! He’s a brilliant theatre actor. He loves it. And he’s a doll. He’s a doll!" And she bursts into laughter, as she takes the words right out of our mouths.
Stay tuned for the New York Theatre Guide's review of M. Butterfly shortly. But until then, enjoy these shots from last night's event, as well as the official production photos of the show.
(Opening Night Photos by Tom Millward / Production Photos by Matthew Murphy)