It is sure to be Yoo’s performance as opera singer Song Liling that will make this productionJohannes Hjorth

“Your mouth says no but your eyes say yes”.

Tucked away in a dressing room at the ADC on an unsuspecting Wednesday lunchtime, Jiwoo Yoo and Daniel Blick are locked in a power struggle. This line marks a pivotal moment in their characters’ development and the once clear lines between victim and aggressor, male and female, and East and West are now completely blurred.

It is this power play that lies at the very centre of David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly. Based on the true story of a Chinese opera singer who deceives a French diplomat into believing he is a woman, Hwang’s Tony award-wining play confronts imperialist attitudes towards race, gender roles and authority.

As suggested by the title, the play is filled with references to Puccini’s opera, Madame Butterfly, in which a Western man falls in love with a Japanese woman only to abandon her and return home. In the opera’s final scenes, the woman, the ‘butterfly’, commits suicide, unable to come to terms with the shame she feels.

But, as director Claire Takami-Siljedahl explains, the play is not simply a modern retelling of Puccini’s 19th-century plot. “This is a traditional device,” she says, “to tie contemporary issues back to older stories. But Hwang confronts these ideas and expectations. The play presents a deconstruction of orientalism, tackling imperialist attitudes, the fetishisation of Asian women and the emasculation of Asian men.”

And this idea became abundantly clear in the scenes I saw on Wednesday. Blick’s character, the Frenchman Gallimard, is more than a simple caricature of the crusading imperialist. Instead, his performance features a nervousness and naivety that at times make him endearingly human. “Even I could protect her – take her home”, he says, in a moment that is equally as troubling as it is heartfelt.

Dan Blick’s Gallimard is more than a simple caricature of the crusading imperialistJohanes Hjorth

However, it is sure to be Yoo’s performance as opera singer Song Liling that will make this production. With subtle, nuanced choices in his approach to body language and speech pattern, the contrast between the male and female sides of his character is both shocking and remarkably convincing. His seduction of the Frenchman is played brilliantly, exercising incredible control and restraint in a role that, like Blick’s, could well have collapsed into crude stereotype.

Although the reveal of Liling’s gender forms a pivotal moment in the play, Takami-Siljedahl isn’t too concerned about spoiling this twist in the plot. “We are aware that this is student theatre”, she says, “and that much of the audience will either know the cast or be familiar with the play”.

“But the effect is about more than just the shock factor. It is a process. A means of deconstructing imperialist attitudes. A play like this offers the chance to open up the discourse, to present alternative narratives. And this is something that is particularly important in Cambridge, where student theatre remains predominantly white and middle class”.

The play’s title, M. Butterfly, famously leaves the gender of its ‘butterfly’ character open. But, as shown by Hwang’s brilliant writing, combined with promising early performances from Yoo and Blick, the central question might not only be one of gender, but also of which character is the butterfly in the net.

M. Butterfly is on from Tuesday 22nd to Saturday 26th November at the Corpus Playroom

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