When Julie Taymor was initially approached to direct the revival of David Henry Hwang’s Tony Award–winning M. Butterfly—based on the true story of French diplomat Bernard Boursicot’s affair with a Chinese opera singer—she said no.
“I felt the play that I had read, that I saw years ago… I didn’t want to do it,” she says.
But, doing her due diligence before officially turning it down, she dug into the events that inspired the play. Taymor’s research led to details that, at the time of Hwang’s writing, had yet to be unearthed. “Elements of that real story were shocking. Amazing.” That was enough for Taymor to sign on; her new production begins performances October 7 at Broadway’s Cort Theatre.
To a woman who holds story and visuals in equal importance, finding an ideograph on which to center the story (and match form to content) was priority number one. Hwang’s diplomat character Rene Gallimard, played here by Clive Owen, narrates the story of his affair from a prison cell. It’s a tale he’s told nightly, mining his memory to figure out his own story.
Taymor realized: “What David Henry Hwang has written is a Chinese puzzle box,” she says. “It’s a cell, it’s hard, it’s cold; he’s confined, it’s small. This notion of the box, this puzzle box, is really facets of his brain—of his imagination.”
As Taymor learned more details of the history and Hwang revised his script, the box expanded. “[The details] made it a much bigger puzzle box and much more of a roller coaster ride, and also—without us having to do it on purpose—more contemporary,” she says. “We call it the metamorphosis of a modern classic because he is bravely transforming his play.”
Similarly, Taymor wanted to push the boundaries of the physical production. Taymor’s M. Butterfly is a confluence of substance and spectacle. Though the Chinese puzzle box initially inspired the design, the demands of Hwang’s writing forced Taymor in a different direction.
“There are about 30-something scenes in the first act alone. When we got to Scene 7 on the Chinese puzzle box, [set designer Paul Steinberg and I] got exhausted.” Borrowing from a Japanese Bunraku technique Taymor witnessed when she was 20, the director found a cinematic solution. “[The end of that show] was a whole bunch of screens that would flip, and flip down, and turn around, like Roman shades or Venetian blinds… this scene, that scene, but all done mechanically,” she explains. “I never got over how beautiful that was.”
Taymor uses screens—here more like Shoji screens made of glass, smoked glass, metal, covered in wallpaper, etc.—to create the architecture of her show. “Butterfly is written cinematically,” she says. “I’ve tried to do what the writer intended that I don’t think for 30 years anybody else has tried to do exactly.”