Review: M. Butterfly

Pippa Smith 23 November 2016

Choosing a quote with which to start this review is a tricky task. David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly is an Arts student’s dream; packed with brilliantly crafted monologues and snappy one liners, it is a play which opens up to a myriad of points of enquiry. Tensions between East and West, cross-dressing, performed and subverted gender roles, and conflicting political ideologies are all foregrounded in this production of the Tony Award winning play.

The Corpus Playroom lends itself well to tightly woven tales of destruction and this production certainly used the space to its advantage. The atmosphere was at once intimate and oppressive: the audience is drawn in as Butterfly (Jiwoo Yoo) undresses behind a screen, silhouetted in soft yellow lighting, and repelled by shouting as the happy domestic illusion shatters for Rene (Dan Blick) and his wife Helga (Jessica Murdoch). The play begins in Rene’s prison cell and the plot is narrated through a series of increasingly complex flashbacks which occur across different times, places and indeed planes of consciousness of Rene’s existence. Despite this, the slick scene changes mean that the main thread is never obscured. The intertextuality with Puccini’s opera is ever present: towards the end of the play in particular it is Butterfly who comes to control the play, indicating who should speak and when. 

Both Yoo and Blick’s performances are highly convincing and I can only imagine the emotional exhaustion that comes with putting on a play such as this. Yoo plays out the complexity of Butterfly’s character with aplomb and he delivers some of Hwang‘s greatest lines with ease. His courtroom speech towards the end of play had my hairs on end, as he explains the sobering truth which upends Western concepts of democracy, power and gender. Blick is just the right blend of the arrogant grammar school educated boy, stinking of white male privilege and the insecure young man, sweating and fumbling his way up the career ladder, haunted by memories of his spotty youth. At times I almost felt pity for him, until he delivered one liners such as this: “But is it possible for a woman to be too uninhibited, too willing, so as to seem almost too… masculine?” 

The production team successfully exploit the theme of dressing and undressing which informs some of the most interesting aspects of the play. Rene starts off with a dressing gown over his suit and his changes between jackets and ties mirror the multiple personas which he is experimenting with. Ending the play wearing the very same kimono as Butterfly was wearing when she fell in love with him reinforces the subversion at the end of the play. Butterfly’s costume changes are equally important: she plays at the Oriental lily in her kimono, the Western actress in a black ball gown and finally, the suit wearing Communist spy back in Paris. The shift dresses and sexy lingerie of Rene’s wife’s Helga are the perfect foil to Butterfly’s modesty when in China, yet her available flesh is undesirable to her roaming husband. Becky Shepherdson’s Renee is an interesting counterpoint to Helga and her monologue reducing all conflict as an attempt to mask small penis size certainly appealed to the audience. As did Cara Fung’s performance as Chin; her blunt assertion “Don't forget: there is no homosexuality in China!” hinted at a wider set of political implications which are left relatively unexplored.  

This production encourages the audience to reflect upon the relevance of the questions which the play asks and whether almost 30 years after its first production, we have found some answers. My hunch is that we haven’t. Unlike anything I have ever seen on the stage in Cambridge, M. Butterfly is a highly thoughtful and well-acted production.