Mark Fisher talks to the new theatre generation’s Olivier about the theatrical wonder of M. Butterﬂy.
It’s a play about the West‘s pig-headed failure to understand the East. about the power of illusion, about sexual politics. about cultural exploitation and about diplomatic secrets in Vietnam. In short, it's a play about weighty subjects. But M. Butterﬂy is no small-scale obscurity playing to the intelligentsia in studio spaces. On the contrary, David Henry llwang‘s 1987 drama took the West End and Broadway by storm. picking up numerous critical plaudits including Tony and Olivier Awards on the way, and is now enjoying a revival and a major British tour.
The new production stars George Chakiris, the original Sharks gang leader in the film of West Side Story and veteran of more than twenty films since, and it is directed by Richard Olivier, the ﬁrst offspring ofthe marriage between Sir Larry and Joan Plowright in the early 605 and now a regular director of mainstagc hits at home and abroad. Undauntcd by a play that has picked up an award bearing his father‘s name, Olivier has taken a fresh look at a sure-fire success. It‘s a success that he puts down to M. Butterﬂy’s built-in theatricality and emotional pull, ‘It starts off very humorously,‘ he says, ‘and then you get a bit ofspectacle — Chinese Opera — then you get involved in a love story and then it turns into a spy story and finally into a very tragic drama. You’ve got this huge
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‘Huge range at emotions’: M. Butterﬂy range ofemotions and a huge range oftheatrical styles. It’s quite extraordinary sitting there at the beginning of the evening and you think you‘re going offon one track and by the end you’ve been stretched as an audience member in ways which very few plays do.‘
Based on a true story. the play is about a male French diplomat who falls in love with a male
Chinese opera-singer believing that he is a woman.
The singer‘s deceit is maintained for twenty years until the diplomat is accused of passing secrets to China and imprisoned. Although Hwang draws an ironic parallel with Madame Butterﬂy. Olivier is quick to point out that a knowledge of the Puccini opera is by no means a prerequisite — everything the audience needs to know is explained on stage — and that play and opera have only a tangential relationship. ‘The leading character will stop what he’s doing and talk to the audience,‘ says Olivier, ‘or he’ll say, “I’ll show you a scene from the opera now and see if you know what I mean about what‘s going on in my life” — it’s very mix ‘n‘ match but in a very organic way.‘
Having worked with the American Men‘s Movement founder, Robert Bly, Olivier was particularly attracted to the play’s treatment of gender relationships, although he admits that its analysis of the West’s imperialism has challenged attitudes he previously took for granted. ‘The most powerful thing that happens to an audience is they are confronted about their own sexuality.‘ he explains, ‘about how much their love or their relationship might be an illusion. I think that's the most powerful element, and these other things are undertones, icing on the cake. It makes it a much fuller play because it‘s working on so many different levels. It uses Vietnam as an example of the West’s misinterpretation ofwhat the East wants, along with the whole gender question about what is masculinity and what is femininity — it links that to the political view that the West thinks of itself as terribly butch and therefore the East is very feminine and is going to submit to its force. That is exactly what didn't happen in Vietnam. It uses that as an example of miscalculation.‘
Consulting with Hwang himself and using the Chinese Opera skills developed in the first London production (which in turn were assimilated from the Peking Opera). Olivier’s principle task was not to impose his vision, but to help the play work for itself. ‘It needs quite a broad-minded approach,“ he explains. ‘You can’t come to this play and say it’s about any one particular thing — a man in a mid-life crisis or whatever. It‘s so brilliantly and clearly written that you have to stop anything from getting in the way.
‘It’s great to have different elements in a play.‘ he continues, ‘and although it’s not a musical, there’s a tremendous amount of musical support which again lends this high theatrical element. All the senses of the audience are being involved. For me what makes theatre vital. alive and worthwhile is when you come across plays like this. that in more ways than one can suddenly blow apart an audience’s expectation. '
M. Butterﬂy, King’s Theatre, Glasgow, Mon 22—Sat27Jun.
‘It’s yet another example of the philistinism oi this country,’ says Michael Bogdanov in relation to the English Shakespeare Company poster advertising its current production of Macbeth. It’s not the poster ltseli (three naked witches in various stages of sexual arousal) which prompts this outburst, but London Transport's decision to ban it.
Bogdanov is no stranger to this sort of controversy— he was the director of the infamous Romans In Britain in the early !
808, several years before co-ioundlng the esc with Michael Pennington. In
this double-bill tour, the lightweight
comedy Twelfth Night, directed by Pennington, is unlikely to ruftle any , feathers. In chasing Macbeth, however, Bogdanov could be stepping l unwittineg into another homets’ nest, i
ON FOLLOWING PAGES: UBU O DEATHS AND ENTRANCES O EXCERCISES IN STYLE
The ESC’s mmﬁugm
it being the play which Rain Dog has just used as its flagship production to condemn all Anglocentric theatre. To have an avowedly English company
coming to Scotland and giving its
: interpretation (kills and all, according , to Bogdanov) risks reinforcing Rain
‘l just choose the plays which I want ' j to produce,’ says an unrepentent
" : Bogdanov. ‘I am approaching Macbeth in the way that I approach ail Shakespeare — I try to identify the social and political structure and see what the play is saying, try to read it as ; iii had never seen it before, so that it
? says something fresh to me.
‘it’s a question of wiping your mind
: clean,’ he contiunues, ‘oi letting the words sink in and blotting out memories of other people’s
productions. if I see a production of a play that seems to say everything that there is to say then i think “Terrific, that's wonderful” and I could never do it, as that production would remain in my memory the whole time. But on the , other hand, if I see a production that’s tlawed, then when I come to read the play It's quite easy to blot it out. I must have seen Macbeth five or six times and I can honestly say i don’t remember very much from any of them - maybe a few images trom Ninagawa such as the the blossom falling all around Macbeth — but that doesn't aftect me when I interpret the play.‘ (Philip Parr) Macbeth, Theatre Royal, Glasgow: Tue 23, Fri 26 and Sat 27 Jun. : Twelfth Night, Theatre Royal, Glasgow: l Wed 24, Thurs 25 Jun.
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