A Very Tense Piece of Theatre

By Chrissy Steinbock — Wed, 09/03/2016 - 13:40

The last thing you expect from an evening of theatre is a nerve wracking thriller with the suspense of a TV crime show and the claustrophobic mind games of SAW. This and enough twists to leave you dizzy is what you’ll find in Butcher, now playing at the Great Canadian Theatre Company through to March 20.

The show starts out innocently enough on a rainy Christmas Eve in a Toronto police station. Detective Lamb (Sean Devine) is working the graveyard shift, looking forward to a quiet night and getting home early to spend Christmas morning with his young family. But Lamb’s silent night is shot to hell when some kids drop off an old man in a military uniform and a Santa hat at the station. The man is weak. He doesn’t seem to speak any English and instead repeats the same phrase in Lavinian, a little-known Slavic-like language. The language was invented for the production by U of T professors Dr. Christina Kramer and Dragana Obradocivic. Stranger still the man has a meat hook around his neck and on the hook like a piece of bait is a lawyer’s business card. Someone’s scrawled arrest me on the back. So Lamb calls up the lawyer and a Lavinian translator to join him in the dead of the night to uncover the mystery that brought this man to the station.

Hamilton Barnes (Jonathan Koensgen), the lawyer arrives first. He’s aloof and annoyed to be called out of bed, especially since he has no idea why his card was found on the man. We in the audience can’t help but get drawn in by the everydayness of Lamb joking, trying to get the lawyer to relax. Maybe the whole thing is a prank. Things take a turn when the translator, Elena (Samantha Madely) arrives and points out that the old man is not just wearing any tattered uniform but that of a Lavinian general, the kind wanted by Interpol for war crimes. From there the tension ratchets up gradually and the plot starts twisting. It’s tricky to talk about without revealing too much so just know that by the end no one is who they seem and some heavy stuff has gone down.

Butcher is the work of Nicolas Billon, an exciting new voice in Canadian theatre whose triptych Fault Lines won the Governor General’s award for drama. When Butcher premiered at Calgary’s Albert Theatre Projects in 2014 it was met with rave reviews and has since been staged in Toronto and Chicago. With six productions this current season it’s no stretch to call the show one of the most wanted new shows around.

Lurking beneath the violence and suspense are hard questions of vengeance, justice, whether those who commit atrocities can even be rightly punished. Centering the story around a conflict in a fictional country opens up a space for a more philosophical meditation on these themes without having to take sides or be bound by historical accuracy. Lavinia itself hints at Eastern Europe at the same time that it alludes to a character in Shakespeare’s bloodiest work, Titus Andronicus who is viciously raped and mutilated. There are other literary references as well from the Furies of Greek tragedy to jokes about Greek and Latin.

Butcher is not for the faint of heart. For one, there’s the palpable tension that will have your hand tightening its grip every so subtly around the armrest. Then there’s the graphic violence recounted in words and played out in slow motion, the way you’d perceive it in a state of shock. Overall, it’s not an easy thing to watch because there’s no tidy ending or easy answers to soothe yourself with once it’s all over. As the lights came up I noticed a couple who seemed to want a moment to sit with what they had just seen.

At one point Elena, the translator tells the cop that he can’t begin to understand what it was like to live through the war. She’s right too. The same is true for most of the audience. War crimes, genocide – these are things we relate to from a distance, in newspaper articles and history lessons. It’s easy to look away.  It keeps us from having to consider whether we have any responsibility to intervene. It saves us from confronting the fact that we may all have the capacity to commit such evil under the right circumstances. In this way Butcher, though unsettling is necessary because it forces us to look this kind of darkness in the eye, and to witness the aftermath: scars that will not heal, un-fixable crimes, and destruction that persists well after the reporters have left. I know some people will argue that the violence is over the top and that it’s simply too entertaining to be taken seriously I think the entertainment value just might be what drives the story home for audiences who don’t have the patience for another history lesson or morality lecture.  

Director Eric Coates does a good job with the script’s fragile balance of thrills and the gravity of the subject at hand. For the most part the performances form the small cast are strong. Sean Devine is a big, warm and friendly Detective Lamb who gives the biggest surprise when he turns. John Koensgen brings a lot of intensity to his role as Josef Džibrilovo. He makes the most out of the role which is largely silent, letting his character speak loudly through his movements. When triggered though, his temper flares up with a fearsome hate seemingly undiminished by age. Joining him onstage for the first time in sixteen years is his son Jonathan Koengsen playing Hamilton Barnes. The younger Koengsen wrings a lot of emotion out of the role giving us the picture of a man pushed to his limits. As Elena, Samantha Madely’s performance is rather muted where one expects fire.

Since all the action is confined to one room in a police station, the set ends up being pretty important. Roger Schultz’s set feels familiar, just what you expect an innercity cop shop to look like from all the ones you’ve seen on screen. There’s lots of paperwork fitting a space where work gets done but there’s also a friendly lived-in feel from the camaraderie of cop culture. When everything is turned upside down and sideways in the plot the set’s stability comes as a comfort.  

Perhaps it’s an inevitable side effect of such a jarring juxtaposition of heavy subject mater approached as a thriller but at times it’s not the violence that unsettles as much as the creeping sense of surreality. For example there is a death scene that’s set up a breaking point which is instead dragged on for too long. I understand the intent was to make the moment more authentic but it turned out awkward. The ending too feels impatient as though Billon realized the run time and rushed towards the last line to bring in it well under 2 hours.

Altogether Butcher is a tense, emotional ride that doesn’t let you look away when things get dark.

Until March 20, 2016
Great Canadian Theatre Company

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