>M. BUTTERFLY by The Singapore Repertory Theatre

>reviewed by kenneth Kwok

>date: 1 may 1999
>time: 8pm
>venue: the victoria theatre
>rating: ****

>tired already? go home then
>review junkie? whitney, give them this click to sniff

>look, we know that you need to know that we, as responsible reviewers, have some quantifiable categories to rate productions, and are not just relying on some undefinable instinct or gut feeling. So to put your mind at ease, we will give you a logical rating system based on the practitioner's vision / and the reviewer's response of a particular production. Here it is then: ***** : Transcendent / Rapturous. ****: Crystal / Appreciative. ***: Transmitted / Thoughtful. **:Vague / Unsatisfied. * : Uncommunicated / Mystified. Yet in the end, you will feel that this is (1) a cheap attempt to justify the subjective arbitrariness of our rating system (2) buttressed by an interest in the logical (and inevitable) categorisation of such productions, which is (3) undermined by the cheapness of the attempt, and (4) confused by the creeping feeling you are getting that we are dead serious in our feeling that this rating system is an accurate description of the content, intent and quality of the production. Oh please -- does it even matter now? Look, at least we tried.


Much has been made of David Henry Hwang's multi-award-winning play that challenges and explores ideas of gender, culture and sexuality; it is to director Tony Petito's credit that despite the elaborate and complex nature of the play and its inherent high and colourful drama, he never loses sight of the heart of M. BUTTERFLY. Essentially, it is the story of one lonely, unloved man who, upon finding a love he was told he never deserved, will do anything to hold on to it.

Rene Gallimard is a French diplomat stationed in Beijing; trapped in a stale and sterile marriage but one which he believes is all that he deserves, Gallimard finds release only in his fascination with Song Liling, a local opera singer, a woman onto whom he projects every fantasy, every dream, every desire. When, to his surprise, she returns his favours and affections, the two embark on an affair that lasts some twenty years - until he discovers that Song is not only a PRC spy but also a man.

It is not fair to Hwang to reduce his utterly captivating script to such a simple summation. Layer upon layer of text and subtext, punchy one-liners and genuinely moving and comedic set pieces - the latter given a boost by the sheer energy of Nicholas Boulton's delightful performance as Gallimard's best friend, Marc - reveals the true nature of the constantly twisting and turning script.

>>'We witness unfolding before our eyes the union of reality and fantasy, male and female, heterosexuality and homosexuality, East and West'

Hwang explores the illusions of life - how we see only what our eyes want to see. Although the central motif of the play is that of the submissive Oriental woman and the aggressive Western man, Hwang also tears at the other social illusions that are often created - the divide between the genders, for example. If Gallimard truly loved Song for who she is as a person, why would he love her any less just because she turns out to be a man? Did he therefore only love Song because she was a woman?

Hwang also makes pointed attacks on the illusions of power (a diplomat's daughter argues that all wars are waged simply because world leaders are fighting to see who has the biggest, erm, equipment), justice and respectability - nothing is real in this world, because everything exists only as we want to perceive it. This is reinforced by the entire proceedings of the plays being played out entirely in Gallimard's mind as he presents his story to us, the audience, as he wants us to see it. And in the end, Gallimard chooses the ultimate illusion; he takes the poetry of death over the harsh truth of life, a truth in which diplomats back-stab one another, men are interested in women only as objects of desire and people are not allowed to love as they will.

The principal and supporting international cast turned in strong performances with Brit Simon Treves as Gallimard being nothing short of amazing; he breathed real life into a man living in fantasy. Local talent Dex Tan, who earned a well-deserved Best Performance nod from the Straits Times in 1998 for PURPLE, was slightly overshadowed by Treves, but still effective as Song, whether as the coy Opera singer, tempting and teasing, or the cool, suave PRC spy that betrays Gallimard both in court and in his affections; although his affected voice bordered on the painful and inaudible at many points and belied an otherwise easy and natural performance.

Surprisingly, in a production in which all eyes are on the characters, it is Francis O'Connor's surreal set design, simultaneously minimalistic and lavish - complete with red-carpeted bridge leading up from the stage to both a platform of doors and a screen which is moon, stage, window in one - which is breathtaking in its effect, truly transporting us to anywhere Gallimard's story brings us to, while always leaving the impression that we are still in Gallimard's mind. The juxtaposition of Mark Chan's original compositions with Pucini's own opera were woven together beautifully and served as an apt metaphor for the coming together of the past and the present, just as we witness unfolding before our eyes the union of reality and fantasy, male and female, heterosexuality and homosexuality, East and West.

If Singapore Repertory Theatre's fine production of this classic at all stumbles, it is perhaps only at the very end when the light magic of direction gives in to the very hard definitions that Hwang seems to be challenging throughout the play. Shades of grey are suddenly made black and white, Dex Tan being dichotomised clearly into male and female, and what would have made for a beautifully ambiguous ending where death and life, performance and reality, love and hate, all bleed into one another, is marred by Song's over-dramatic "Butterfly! Butterfly!" upon Gallimard's death that closes the play. But these are minor quibbles to what is arguably the strongest theatrical production so far this year; yet another feather in SRT's cap.