Review: M. Butterfly

Vinith Bhandari 19 May 2022

M. Butterfly, although quite entwined with the opera Madame Butterfly, tells the tale of French diplomat Rene Gallimard who falls in love with a Chinese opera singer, Song Liling. The references to the opera in David Henry Hwang’s M.Butterfly bring about a relevant critique. It is a baseline to which Gallimard compares his own relationship. This is a play which can be hard to watch, but evidently what we need to see. Living in the western world, we reinforce their stereotypes and delusions of us. To see them play out and break into pieces was quite the experience. The play reflects what the occident thought of the orient and to date still does. It is one of the best piece of storytelling I have seen at Cambridge but it might just be the biased orient in me.

The set design was great and it felt like a clever use of space without making it too complex. The lights, especially the spotlight in the centre stage brought out the enigma and helped focus the audience’s attention. There were a few technical issues with the music but overall a great choice of music. The costume choices and mannerisms further brought the orientalist viewpoint to the forefront.

Before the play began, we learnt of the change in the lead actors. Charmaine Au-Yeung, the actress originally cast to play Song Liling, was not going to do the part anymore. The showrunners stated “As rehearsals for M. Butterfly progressed, both cast and crew doubted the suitability of a cisgender woman to play the role of Song Liling in 2022… Jaden Tsui will take on the role of Song Liling.” The crew stressed this was a mutual decision. This was a difficult but necessary change. Putting aside our political and societal views, a cis-woman in the role of Song liling would never bring the intensity required in the second half of the play. For that part to feel real, the audience had to see the truth fall apart and feel it. We just had to. It would never deliver the same way with a cis-woman playing the part. It is important to acknowledge the efforts Charmaine put in for the role but the casting would never have felt appropriate. Bearing in mind this is a sensitive and complex issue, I will focus my review away from it, though felt it did need to be addressed.

Gallimard’s story and dilemma is brought really well to the stage by Joe Harrington and that the audience is convinced of the plight the poor man felt. It also struck a strong chord as the western ideas of the east were brought to the audience through him – A delusion he called his fantasy. As Song Liling, Jaden tried their best but the performance lacked the finishing touch the process of rehearsal gives. A huge shoutout for stepping into the role last minute but the performance would’ve significantly benefited had the decision been made by the crew earlier.  Their monologues on the orient and the westerner’s viewpoint of the east were powerful and quite engaging yet the script in hand made it hard to keep up the intensity. The supporting actors did well in their capacities and overall the play brought out the message it advertised really well.

The direction by Tungsten Tang and Hetty Opayinka was strong and the transitions in the story quite smooth with the exception of a few hiccups.  The powerful language of the script and its apt usage should definitely be recognised. To see such a powerful piece of theatre at a university level (although I know how amazingly talented Cambridge theatre is) was a truly enlightening experience. It makes you confront what is at the back of your head. The idea of owning a women and the hysterical rape mentality were realities we often ignore in everyday instances. At this time point in 2022, M.Butterfly drives home the conversation of the West, the oppressed east, femininity and how a man truly sees a woman. The play questions itself and everything associated with the Western idea of orientalism as the climax brings unsettling ideas of truth into our hearts.

Watching M. Butterfly on a Tuesday evening might have facilitated what I thought was almost absent in Cambridge circles – the thought of postcolonialism and the shattering of the Western oriental mirror.

3.5/5 Stars.  

M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang is on at the ADC Theatre at 7:45pm until the 21st May. Tickets can be bought here: https://www.adctheatre.com/whats-on/play/m-butterfly/