Butcher: Go vegetarian

Peter Anderson and Daryl Shuttleworth both act in Butcher, which is about ongoing ethnic violence.

Peter Anderson and Daryl Shuttleworth appear in Nicolas Billon’s problematic Butcher.

Nicola Billon’s Butcher exploits real suffering to create gimmicky entertainment. I hated it so much that I wanted to boo.

On Christmas Eve, an old guy in a military uniform has been dropped off at a police station. A butcher’s hook was tied around his neck and the business card of a lawyer named Hamilton Barnes was impaled on the hook. There were two words scrawled on the card: “Arrest me.”

In the opening scene, a cop named Inspector Lamb is trying to interrogate the old guy, whose name is Josef and who speaks a made-up language called Lavinian. (In the play, Lavinia is a real country.) Lamb has also called in Barnes to figure out why his card was on the hook. And, before long, a Lavinian translator named Elena arrives.

Whatever is going on, it’s about ethnic violence. Josef and Elena are from different ethnic groups within Lavinia. When Elena sees Josef’s military uniform, she reacts with horror and fury. When he finds out the she is not of his ethnicity, he spits on her.

Lavinia could be all sorts of places. For me, the most immediate reference point is the former Yugoslavia.

Here’s the thing: Butcher takes very serious subject matter, including extreme physical torture and child rape and, rather than giving that material the thoughtful attention that it deserves Butcher uses the energy of horror to drive a superficial and mechanical plot.

In Butcher, very little is as it seems, which leads to an endless series of revelations: “Oh my gosh! That character isn’t who I thought they were!” This emphasis on stylistic cleverness and shock value— we see on-stage torture and there’s a spooky off-stage voice that could have come straight out of a horror movie—leaves little room for meaningful moral engagement. The play concludes with a statement about the importance of ending the cycle of violence, but that statement is glib. In one of the script’s most substantial utterances, a character talks about the pain of living through a political tragedy that the world has become bored with, but plays like Butcher contribute to moral alienation by turning suffering into a kind of diverting game.

Some of the performances in this Equity co-op production are solid and some aren’t. For me, Lindsey Angell’s Elena is the heart of this show: impressively, she manages to be commanding and vulnerable at the same time. And, speaking Lavinian, Peter Anderson brings contained authenticity to the role of Josef. To me, it often felt like Daryl Shuttleworth (Inspector Lamb) was showing us an attitude rather than a character. Noel Johansen’s Barnes is flat and mostly false.

Under Kevin McKendrick’s direction, the stylistic world of this production is vague: the elements of melodrama, naturalism, comedy, and drama remain unintegrated.

Then again, the play itself is unintegrated. As he has demonstrated in earlier works, including the terrific Iceland, playwright Billon is no dummy. But, with Butcher, he undoes himself. He tries to address serious moral issues in the form of a thriller, but the thriller takes over.

BUTCHER by Nicolas Billon. Directed by Kevin McKendrick. Produced by Prime Cuts Collective. In the Historic Theatre at The Cultch on Wednesday, March 21. Continues until March 31.


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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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