A star-crossed love story and a drama of international espionage: David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly tells the incredible tale of a French diplomat’s scandalous twenty-year affair with a mysterious Chinese opera star. Now this modern masterpiece, winner of the 1988 Best Play Tony Award, is headed back to Broadway, starring Academy Award nominee Clive Owen and directed by Tony Award winner Julie Taymor.
“This is a complex story, but it’s also very touching and emotional,” Owen says of M. Butterfly. “I didn’t know the play, but when Julie Taymor sent it to me, I read it — and then kept re-reading it. I’ve been sitting with it for well over a year now, and I’m still excited, still discovering new things.”
The role of Rene Gallimard, based on a real-life diplomat stationed in Beijing in the 1960s, was created on Broadway by John Lithgow and played on film by Jeremy Irons. A buttoned-up career officer, Gallimard is drawn into an impossible situation (no spoilers ahead, for those unfamiliar with the play!), that lands him in prison for treason, a scenario Owen finds entirely plausible. “It’s believable because it really happened,” he says. “However hard it may be for the rest of the world to understand, the play is about two people who create a private world for themselves that ultimately comes crashing down.”
Playwright David Henry Hwang saw parallels between the romance of the French diplomat and Chinese spy and the plot of Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly. Three decades later, he and Taymor are adding new material inspired by new information about the real affair. “The play doesn’t feel dated,” Owen says, “but we know much more now about the people involved than when David wrote it. He is incorporating some fascinating things, and this feels like exactly the right time to bring the play back.”
Taymor, whose revolutionary staging of The Lion King still attracts sellout crowds 20 years after the show opened on Broadway, calls M. Butterfly “a profoundly moving and tragic love story that speaks to the issue of what ‘love’ really means, placed in a complex political environment that examines the power struggle between East and West. Most importantly, David has gone back to re-examine the true story, which he had no knowledge of when he wrote the play, as he was initially inspired by a brief news article. The actual facts of the real story that took place in the 1960s and 1970s now seem so contemporary and speak to issues that obsess our current culture. I saw the original production and thought it was startling and beautiful, but I think this re-examination and thorough rewrite is far more compelling and shocking.”
Key to Taymor’s view of the play is the casting of Owen, known to film and TV audiences for his powerful performances in Closer, The Knick, Children of Men, Gosford Park, and The Bourne Identity, among many others. A graduate of London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, Owen received an Oscar nomination for the film adaptation of Patrick Marber’s Closer, a story of obsessive love directed by Mike Nichols. “You relate to a film like Closer or a play like M. Butterfly because they are human stories,” he observes. “Even if the characters are not like you, you know the pain they are feeling. This play, in particular, looks at relationships in such a mature way.”
Taymor was well aware of Owen’s ability to convey infatuation, desperation, and mourning in a single scene. Rene Gallimard, she explains, “thinks of himself as impossibly ineffectual and uncharismatic until he meets the woman of his dreams. It is not about what Gallimard looks like, it is how he thinks of himself, and Clive will embody that self-doubting dilemma. Rene Gallimard is a hopeless romantic, a passionate, oddly repressed man ready to explode. He is witty and, during this telling of his story, painfully self-aware. Having done readings of the new version with Clive, I believe he has the multilayered talent to expose many facets of this complex character. I’m thrilled he is playing the part.”
Luckily for the director, Owen was primed for a second stint on Broadway after his debut two seasons ago in a limited engagement of Harold Pinter’s Old Times. “At that point, I hadn’t been on stage for more than 13 years,” he says, “and the play reminded me of why I fell in love with acting in the first place. If I hadn’t had that experience, I probably would have been too scared to take this on.”
Sealing the deal for Owen was the opportunity to work with Taymor. “She is a proper director,” he declares, “fiercely intelligent, vigilant, exacting, and precise. We know she will create a beautiful framing for the play, which is epic in scale, but she is also aware of the details. She will be passionate and smart about everything in this production, and that’s what you want as an actor.”
A play that features Peking Opera excerpts, a ballet scene, and fragments of Madama Butterfly is tailor-made for Taymor, an acclaimed director of opera and film in addition to theater. (The new production will feature a score by Oscar winner Eliot Goldenthal, her longtime collaborator.) “David’s play flows cinematically and is inherently musical,” she points out. “There are 37 scenes or so in the first act alone. The story is based in Gallimard’s prison cell, but I want to move between the daydreams, flashbacks, and hallucinations in a transformative way, like an ever-changing Chinese box. I also want to avoid automation and projections, to keep the experience visceral and handmade. At its essence, we are just moving screens to create different locations and the architecture of his memories. Sometimes the space is stripped bare, cold and brutal. At other times it can be romantic, illusive, multilayered, and mysterious.”
The combination of a charismatic star and a visionary director promises to produce one of the most exciting productions of the coming season. “When I was training at the Royal Academy, it was my dream to play on Broadway, more so than the West End,” says Owen. “I had a romantic idea of what Broadway was, probably because it was exotic and far away. I was lucky enough to make it to Broadway a few years back, and now I’m about to work with one of the greatest theater directors in the world on a brilliant play that hasn’t been done in a long time. That little dream of mine is coming true.”
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