Academy Award nominee and Golden Globe winner Clive Owen returns to Broadway to star in the first major New York revival of David Henry Hwang's 1988 Tony Award-winning play M. Butterfly. The production is directed by Broadway favorite and Tony Award winner Julie Taymor.
The play has undergone extensive re-writes by Mr. Hwang, in collaboration with Ms. Taymor, specifically for this Broadway revival. This new version contains much more factual information and delves more deeply into the psyche and the relationship between the central characters of Rene Gallimard (Clive Owen) and Song Liling (Jin Ha). Based on a true story, there was very little information about the case in the late 1980's in the public domain. In fact, Mr. Hwang only came across the story in a single column on page 27 of the New York Times one day. Nowadays, so much more detail has emerged about this extraordinary case of espionage, mistaken identity and gender fluidity. This has given both playwright and director the opportunity to expose the story in a new light - a story narrated to us from a prison cell in Paris in 1986.
Ms. Taymor's production is stylized in design, drawing inspiration from Japanese Bunraku techniques and Chinese puzzle boxes. Her use of shifting screens of steel, smoked glass, and materials depicting traditionally Asian artwork is hypnotic to the eye and yet still manages to radiate the coldness of a prison cell. True, this story is unravelled through the medium of Gallimard's imagination, but it never feels luxuriously aggrandized. There is a perceptible Brechtian feel about this revival, as we, the audience, are always aware that we are watching the re-telling of a story, rather than simply the story itself. The characters dispute what should be told and what is irrelevant. Gallimard even threatens to pull the plug on the whole charade at one point. In spite of this, and perhaps a credit to the skill of Mr. Owen himself, we still feel a connection to Gallimard. We want to understand him. We yearn for happiness for the unlikely pairing of Gallimard and Liling.
Hwang's insight into attitudes of East and West are perhaps equally as intriguing as the question of gender in this play. Jin Ha delivers a couple of punching speeches about the "masculinity" of the West and the "feminity" of the East and Westerners perceptions that the East's desire is to be dominated by the West. "Our mouths say No, but our eyes say Yes..." Although the play was written almost thirty years ago, these cultural and stereotypical impressions still rang true throughout the audience. Although gender fluidity is perhaps not quite as shocking today as it was in the 1980's, racial issues remain ubiquitous in our times and here Mr. Hwang has excelled once again by exposing them on the Broadway stage, with the help of a stellar cast of both Asian and Caucasian actors and a director, who is not afraid to take chances in her work.
(Photos by Matthew Murphy)