Production: M. Butterfly
Venue: Drama Barn
Rating: * * * *
Arriving to see M. Butterfly, I was glad I already had a ticket reserved: waiting at the doors was the largest audience I’d seen for a Drama Barn production in months. I hope this is a reflection on the reputation of the co-directors and producers Karmun Sum and Mingyu Lin, whose production of Another Once Upon a Time last term proved charming, engaging, and popular. Tonight however, they had more ambitious plans.
David Henry Hwang’s 1988 play is based on a true story ‘of clandestine love and mistaken sexual identity’, and a morbid curiosity seizes the audience from the start. Upon entering the barn, we discover Rene Gallimard (Raza Rizvi). Ill met by spotlight, he sits motionless on an old crate, bespectacled, dressing gowned and pensive. He introduces himself to us calmly but sardonically, indicating his charming coffee table (a box in the corner of his prison cell) and telling us how at school he was voted least likely to be invited to a party. However his past hides a secret: a story that he is willing to share while he searches for a new ending to it. This is a tale of a man who wants to both justify his actions and air his take on events.
Rizvi’s performance is understated, naturalistic and clear. The deadpan wit and passionless eyes of a man who didn’t enjoy his first sexual experience were exquisitely subtle and gave the audience much delight. His ability to bring out farcical humour in an often disturbing play is a genuine pleasure to watch, although some of his control is sadly lost in the later scenes of the production – perhaps due to under rehearsal.
We first see love-interest Song Lilling (R. Kodama) moving softly, with a hint of detachment, as a half-remembered vision. As the butterfly of the piece, Kodama plays the exploitation of Gallimard’s ‘imperialist fascination’ with the caution that such a role requires. As his character shifts in perspective, he becomes forceful and flippant; and as his ambiguities – and his clothes – fall to the floor, he moves his character into more sinister and unnerving areas as neither Gallimard nor the audience know what to believe anymore. Given that the role is one of the most difficult I have yet seen attempted in the Drama Barn, Kodama copes well, although the challenges of portraying such a character are evident. While this gives the audience the opportunity to give Kodama the benefit of the doubt, it also means our disbelief can never be entirely suspended. However, in a play like this, perhaps this is as much as we can hope for.
Honourable mentions must go to Marc (Ryan Hall), Gallimard’s school-friend and imaginary confidante for providing some of the greatest comedy of the production. His overflowing libido contrasts well with Rizvi’s shyness, and he took every opportunity to bring the audience further into the narrative (by which I mean he committed mild sexual assault on the front row). Emily Farrow’s shameless nymphomaniac blonde was a good foil to Kodama’s discreet and mysterious oriental sexuality, nicely emphasising the play’s theme of the different attitudes to sex across the world and the power-shifts this creates.
The staging of the production was sometimes excellent but at times in need of greater revision. The scenes involving voyeurism or violence were extremely effective, creating dramatic shadows against the back wall; and the little scenes set up around the stage were a thoughtful way of allowing Gallimard to walk between his memories. Music was also used considerately, with traditional Chinese percussion mingled with snatches of Puccini and American rock. However, the staging of the second half could be been thought through with more care. In fact, the concluding act of the play somewhat lacked the focus and control of the first: while there were several entertaining scenes, the movement between them was often less slick and there was a certain loss of momentum. While there is no doubt that the directors have a talent for innovative imaginings, more preparation time would have turned this generally sound production into an excellent one.
The bold decision to attempt such an ambitious piece should be applauded; M. Butterfly is a complex play about race, sexuality, what it means to be a man or a woman, and raises some engaging ideas about the nature of storytelling. Given the limited rehearsal time available for a week two play the cast and crew are to be commended. Inevitably, their restricted preparations meant some lines were missed on opening night; but despite certain flaws this is an intriguing production which is worthy of a play that is deceptively difficult to perform.