New in 2017 Clive Owen stars in a revival of David Henry Hwang’s Tony Award-winning drama about a married French diplomat who carries on a 20-year affair with a mysterious Chinese opera singer.
From the producers: "M. Butterfly" charts the scandalous romance between a married French diplomat and a mysterious Chinese opera singer - a remarkable love story of international espionage and betrayal. Their 20-year relationship pushed and blurred the boundaries between male and female, east and west - while redefining the nature of love and the devastating cost of deceit.
Hwang's play is based on a real-life account of a French diplomat in communist China who carried on an affair for many years with a Chinese "woman" opera singer, Song Liling, who turned out to be a man - and a spy. How the diplomat was fooled - and how he fooled himself - is the essence of the story. The original 1988 Broadway production won the Tony Award for Best Play and was also a finalist for the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.
Clive Owen, an Oscar nominee for the 2004 film "Closer," was most recently seen on Broadway in the Harold Pinter drama "Old Times." Director Julie Taymor won the 1998 Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical and for Best Costumes for the still-running "The Lion King." Her other Broadway credits include "Juan Darien," "Green Bird," and "Spider Man: Turn Off the Dark."
While broadening the play...the production wades into didactic territory that fights against the work's inherent theatricality. The director has a firmer grasp of the visual spectacle...there's much to please the eye here. By virtue of its subject matter alone, "M. Butterfly" remains a provocative drama. But in their counterintuitive attempt to make the play relevant for an audience more versed in the complexities of gender and racial politics, Taymor and Hwang have inadvertently undercut its pathos.
Owen brings London stage chops and matinee idol polish to the play's conflicted protagonist. The show's secret is long out, and that suits Taymor's production just fine. Spared the pressure of keeping a spoiler under wraps, this revised "Butterfly" has room to expand its political parable, and more deeply explore Song's backstory. "M. Butterfly" has proven its relevance into the Wikipedia era...but its greater enduring value is as a thought-provoking fable.