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M Butterfly review at the Cort Theatre, New York – ‘a lavish, but passionless revival’

Clive Owen and Jin Ha in M Butterfly on Cort Theatre, New York. Photo: Matthew Murphy Clive Owen and Jin Ha in M Butterfly on Cort Theatre, New York. Photo: Matthew Murphy
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Having won a Tony for its original 1988 Broadway production, M Butterfly subsequently spread its wings and flew to the West End. A film followed in 1993. This Broadway revival feels both over-dressed and dramatically under-nourished.

Clearly indebted to the Peter Shaffer school of sensationalist playwriting, David Henry Hwang’s play is a mixture of supposedly transgressive sexuality, psychological posturing and operatic references. Based on a true story, it portrays the relationship between a French civil servant and a Chinese opera diva in 1960s Beijing. The diplomat replays the story from his prison cell, after he is imprisoned for treason for passing secrets to his lover, but he also never knew that his supposedly female lover was in fact a man.

In an age where gender fluidity is increasingly normalised, the revelation is hardly as shocking as it once was. Director Julie Taymor, in her first Broadway show since the debacle of Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark, piles on an equally clunky spectacle of moving screens that are manually manipulated into different shapes.

Taymor, like the play’s original director John Dexter, is also known for her work at the Metropolitan Opera House, and she can’t resist the operatic allusions. There’s a live percussionist and some lavishly staged opera interludes. (With Miss Saigon also back on Broadway, Puccini’s Madame Butterfly is everywhere right now).

The real drama is, however, supposed to play out between Clive Owen’s diplomat and Jin Ha as his lover, but there’s something rather tentative and passionless about this too; there’s little sense of connection — or jeopardy.

Owen is physically a bit stiff, Ha is more sensuous but feels stilted. Without being able to believe in their relationship, there’s not much at stake.

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Clive Owen stars in Julie Taymor’s lavish but clunky Broadway revival of a sensationalist play