Printable CopyM. BUTTERFLY
St Jude's Players
St Jude's Hall (Grundy Hall)
Until 06 Apr 2017

Review by Paige Mulholland

Particularly in the amateur theatre world, it is always a risk to perform a modern, experimental and revealing piece of theatre. In this case, it was a risk that paid off; this production of “M. Butterfly” showed an outstanding level of thought and sensitivity in casting, performance and direction, rewarding the large audience who chose to take a chance.

“M. Butterfly” tells the story of Rene Gallimard, a naïve, socially awkward diplomat living in China, who engages in a decades-long affair with a Chinese opera singer only to find that the singer is a Chinese spy – and that’s not even the revelation that shocks him most. Imprisoned for revealing state secrets, Rene tells his story from his prison cell, trying to understand how his submissive, feminine “Butterfly” could possibly be a fabrication. Exploring themes of gender, colonialism, race and sexuality, “M. Butterfly” challenges many ingrained ideas Westerners may take for granted; some of these ideas could probably have been expressed in a more compact way, but they are exciting and challenging ideas nonetheless.

One of St Jude’s Players’ choices that was questionable, however, was the start time of the show. When a show includes two intervals and runs for over three hours, particularly when that show is premiering on a weeknight in the outer suburbs, an 8:00PM start time takes away from the accessibility of the show, and means that the audience is noticeably flagging by the end. Professionals, students, parents, and anyone else who must be awake and presentable by 9:00AM should either choose a weekend performance of “M. Butterfly” or give it a skip, and St Judes would be wise to aim for a 7:00PM or 7:30PM start with any other epics like “M. Butterfly”.

When a show is as lengthy as “M. Butterfly” and includes so much dialogue and so many long scenes, it is essential that the actors can capture and keep the attention of the audience. Luckily, St Jude’s performers achieved this with comedy, strong characterisation and aplomb. James Whitrow perfectly captures Rene Gallimard’s innocence, while also portraying his conflicting desire to be powerful, manly and sometimes even domineering. James Edwards plays the enigmatic Song Liling (“Butterfly”) with mystique and charisma, taking on a challenging nude scene with confidence. The two leads were supported by an excellent cast, all of whom were well-rehearsed and embodied their characters skilfully. The accents were the weakest element of the play, particularly those that were French or German, and the show didn’t seem to need them – a neutral Australian accent would have been less distracting than a poor European one.

Despite the accents, the show was very culturally sensitive in its casting and its portrayal of other cultures. It is always exciting to see an amateur theatre company that makes accurate and diverse casting a priority, and does not settle for anything less. It is clear that the costuming and set, although sometimes quite abstract and utilitarian, was also well-researched and thoughtful.

The towering chalkboards used to represent the West and the East were very original and made the stage feel much larger and more imposing, adding to the East-West tension felt throughout the play. Staging, lighting, sound and costume all complemented one another very well.

Even the sleepiest of audience members were thoroughly excited by “M. Butterfly” – the energetic opening-night applause was proof enough of that. Leave your preconceptions at the door and settle in for an intense journey. Be warned though, Song Liling’s deception may leave you wondering what skeletons (or butterflies) your loved ones have in their closets.