Governor General's Award winner, Nicholas Billon's latest play, BUTCHER received its Toronto debut on Wednesday night at The Theatre Centre. It's an excellent production of an intelligent and unsettling script, but it is not for the faint of heart.
The play opens in a police station in Toronto, on Christmas Eve. An elderly man (a commanding John Koensgen) in an old military uniform and a Santa hat, with a butcher's hook strung around his neck, has been deposited on the steps of the station. On the end of the meat hook, a lawyer's business card has been spiked, with a note on the other side, "ARREST ME". The old man is from some unknown East European country, and he doesn't seem to speak any English.
The police officer (a riveting Tony Nappo) has summoned the lawyer (a beautifully nuanced Andrew Musselman) named on the card to the station, to ascertain how it is the old man happened to have his business card on him in the first place. The lawyer, a ex-pat Brit named Hamilton Barnes, claims to have no knowledge of the old man. The police officer has determined what language the old man speaks, and has called in a translator (Michelle Monteith, making the best of a thankless part). She arrives, and things get - intense.
No one is who they initially claim to be.
Billon has written an old fashioned revenge tragedy, placing it in a contemporary setting, where a war criminal is dragged out of hiding and held to account for his sins of the past by one of his former victims.
In this kind of play, vengeance is seen, by the perpetrator of the act of taking vengeance, as a passion for justice. The vengeance seeker is not interested in balancing the scales of justice, but rather in blindly and bloodily wielding Justice's exacting sword. This sentiment is articulated very clearly in the play, and put horrifyingly into action through the capable direction of Weyni Mengesha, and fight staging of Simon Fon.
Billon does have a character argue the other side: that the courts and the law are the way to punish the perpetrators of crimes against humanity, but that perspective don't get much floor time in this excursion.
Billon is a brilliant writer. The play is inventive,
well-structured, articulate, and churns out both ideas and action. The questions he poses about crime and justice, as well as his theatrical treatment of
the subject of revenge, allude to dramas on the subject by the Romans, (Seneca) and the
writing, acting and direction, are all admirably strong. It's rare to
see such a great exploration of this difficult subject.
Contemporary audiences, however, are subjected to torture-porn/vigilante justice in the guise of police procedurals, and Dexter episodes seven days a week. I suspect I am not the only spectator with vengeance fatigue.
Billon clearly demonstrates that vengeance is pointless. This is both the play's moral heart and its greatest structural weakness. The character who is the engine of the action of the play is singular in pursuit of a horrific objective. The actor executing this role is given one note to play by the writer. The performer does a fine job, but one note is one note.
Yes evil is both banal and appalling. Watching 90 minutes of unrelenting horror visited on victims is not cathartic, in this play, just exhausting and draining. I left the theatre feeling sullied, as if, by the act of viewing such atrocity, I was somehow complicit in its enactment.
The Elizabethan statesman, Francis Bacon said, "In taking revenge, a man is but even with his enemy, but in passing it over, he is superior, for it is a prince's part to pardon." Mercifully, the writer affords us a glimpse of that prince at the end, as well as a shimmering vision of innocence and hope. Would that the voice of reason, and the vision of hope had been given more voice in this disturbing production.
BUTCHER continues at THE THEATRE CENTRE until November 15th, as part of The November Ticket Theatre Festival at The Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen Street West. For dates, times and ticket prices go to www.novemberticket.com or call (416) 538 0988.