There are few plays written about the concept of deception that call into question the role of the imagination in sustaining an illusion so vigorously as ‘M. Butterfly’. Written by David Henry Hwang in 1988, it inevitably draws parallels with Puccini’s opera, whilst recreating the story of disgraced French diplomat Bernard Bouriscot (here under the name Rene Gallimard). The story centres on his affair with Shi Pei Pu (Song Liling), the Peking opera singer he believes to be a woman who subsequently spies on him for the Chinese government. The fantastic and almost unbelievable story of this 20 year relationship is fraught with subtle and confusing shifts of faith and emotion, making it a challenging and exciting piece of drama.
Director Whitney Mosery, the first American student to be accepted onto RADA’s MA Theatre Directing course, has taken a simple approach to the script in order to ‘lay bare the stage, lay bare the soul’. This is an approach which requires, at the very least, a competent and engaging story teller. Fortunately, the audience find themselves, satisfyingly, in the hands of Hilton McRae as the foolish Gallimard. McRae plays deliciously with the role, adding layer upon layer to a wonderfully complex psyche whilst developing his emotions and attitudes towards his ‘Butterfly’. The portrayal of Gallimard is a sympathetic one, although it is hard for the audience not to sympathise with one who loves and believes in a lie. He appears frustrated, besotted, cruel at times but eventually repentant and, above all, naïve.
The trouble with his role is not so much his own portrayal, but rather the appearance of Song, played by Jeffrey Ho, who, from his first moment on stage, is too masculine for you ever to believe that Gallimard may have been deceived. However, this masculinity calls into question whether he has always known that Song is a man and does, as Mosery wanted, get the audience to ‘participate emotionally and creatively’. Aside from his masculinity, Ho’s performance is very strong, despite a couple of slips with lines. He shines, especially after his exposure as a man, when he takes a shallow, debonair attitude towards all characters, changes his stance and gesture and generally incites the audience’s disdain. However, Ho’s performance clashes with Tina Chiang as Comrade Chin. Her British accent, alongside Ho’s Chinese, is confusing and occasionally off-putting; her overblown performance is nearly enough to burst the illusion the production creates. McRae and Ho have enough chemistry for this to be forgotten though and it is their relationship, not the involvement of the Chinese government, which makes the story truly remarkable.
Whilst occasional moments endanger the believability of this production, it is generally very strong. Mosery is a gifted and visionary director and if she continues to use a simplistic and riveting style that forces the audience to use their imagination then it shouldn’t be long before she’s directing shows at some of London’s top theatres.