Stage to Screen

I watched the film version of ‘M Butterfly’ recently.  I saw the stage version in 1992, so I know this comparison is being made with a gap of 21 years, but the film did not match the play for power and intensity.  In fact, watching the movie version made me question why the play had such resonance for me.  I downloaded the LA Theatre Works radio version with John Lithgow in the main role and, even with sound only, it was immediately clear why it was so successful… on the stage.

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The story is one of deception.  Or maybe, it is more about self- deception.  Rene Gallimard is a French Embassy official based in China.  He falls in love with a beautiful Chinese singer, Song Liling.  In the Beijing Opera, female roles were played by males.  Whether Gallimard knows this or not is never revealed but we, the audience, know it and see the spectacle of a man making a fool of himself.  In any case, he first comes across a beautiful version of a woman playing Madam Butterfly. How this singer becomes ‘his Butterfly’ is the story we follow.

The play spans over 20 years, during which time they conduct a physical affair and have a baby.  The humiliation for Gallimard is complete when he is convicted of spying and his perfect woman is revealed to the world, and to him, as a man.  “I’m a man who loved a woman created by a man. Everything else- simply falls short.” Gallimard.

The strength of the play is the way in which it invokes our sympathy for Rene Gallimard.   We know we are heading for a tragic ending; he tells us this story from his prison cell.  His memories are conjured up for us on the stage so that we see the deception as it plays out.

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I saw the play with George Chakaris in the role of Gallimard and D.C. Chan as Song Liling.  The programme notes were cleverly written so I had no idea if D.C. Chan was a man playing the man who pretends to be a woman (or a woman playing the man who pretends to be a woman) until the end when there is a scene which leaves us in no doubt.  It was both shocking and so necessary.  No wonder, the memory of this play was so strong!

Although the film does what the stage play cannot, bring us amazing scenery and period detail of a busy Beijing in the 1960s, that is about the only way in which the film is superior to the play.  We do not see a broken Gallimard at the start so we meet him as a somewhat naïve but ambitious diplomat and follow him chronologically towards the fateful exposure.  John Lone as Song Liling is not a convincing woman, but maybe this is director David Cronenburg’s intention.  We watch as the relationship becomes intimate and question how he did not know.  When Song Liling, after his court appearance clearly a man, strips in front of Gallimard, it has none of the tension needed for this scene.  After all, we already know… plus, he never faces front!

Stereo- typing leads us to make assumptions about individuals.  In the theatre, I too was caught up in this.  The East is often portrayed as exotic and feminine while the West sees itself as muscular.  With the film, the audience is off the hook.  Other people may fall victim to stereo- types.  We see everything clearly.  Maybe this is why it lacked power.

So, even though Jeremy Irons is such a good actor and played Gallimard as a fool in love, and even though I am a big film fan, here is a story that is best left to the theatre. If you can’t see it, listen to the John Lithgow radio version.

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The stage version of M Butterly is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?

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