Playwright Nicolas Billon premiered Butcher last year in Calgary, having previously won the 2013 Governor-General’s Award for Fault Lines, a work of three plays including Greenland, Iceland, and Faroe Islands. While Billon’s previous plays have had darker themes, they look like comedy sketches in comparison to his latest work. Butcher forces the audience to examine what would happen when victims and perpetrators of ethnic violence meet almost 20 years later and an ocean away from their first encounter in a concentration camp. At last, the victim is more powerful than the perpetrator, but whether victims can find peace without vengeance is left to be discovered.
The play is reminiscent of the trials of former Auschwitz officers. On trial are nonagenarians who one might pass on the street and think “What a cute old man.” When war criminals become so far removed from the time and setting of their transgressions, it’s strange to think that millions have been murdered at their hands.
Butcher opens on a rainy Christmas Eve in a Toronto police station where Inspector Lamb, (Alain Goulem) an average, no-nonsense police officer. He likes hockey, loves his family, and just wants to be home with his wife and daughters by Christmas morning. Dumped at the police station is a man (Chip Chuipa) wearing a Santa hat and an old general’s uniform. He speaks only a (made-up) Eastern European language called Lavinian. The only things found on his person are a business card for a lawyer named Hamilton Barnes with the words “arrest me” written on it, as well as a butcher’s hook.
Hamilton Barnes (James Loye), the eloquent English lawyer is the foil to the humdrum Inspector Lamb. Barnes holds a firm belief in the power of law and order, and has an extensive knowledge of Latin and Greek. Enter Elena (Julie Tamiko Manning), the Lavinian translator and nurse. The drama quickly turns from comedic clash of characters to a serious look at ethnic conflict in a lonely police station at 3 a.m.
In a play that addresses the horrors of genocide, it would be too sickening to describe or depict crimes against humanity in gory detail. Billon wanted characters to speak in a Slavic language, but it was essential that no one in the audience could understand every line of dialogue. He worked with University of Toronto linguist Christina Kramer to create Lavinian, challenging the audience to confront how and why they communicate with one another.
In keeping with Billion’s decision to have violence described in a language nobody can understand, director Roy Surrette ensured that some of the most violent scenes were staged in darkness, obscuring the audience from what’s really going on. That’s not to say that the play was G-rated, as the climax of the play features a drawn-out murder that is only partially hidden from view.
A stellar cast that supports Billon’s complex script fully; Alain Goulem’s portrayal of Lamb initially comes off as cartoonish, yet by the end of the roller coaster ride of plot twists, his expert portrayal of a cop hiding a dark secret is transfixing. In a remarkable feat, Chuipa delivers each of his lines with powerful emotion, be they anger, confusion, or pain—and all of them in a language invented solely for this production. The audience is left in the dark as to what exactly he’s saying, but despite the language barrier, emotional power and emotional truth come to the forefront in the most pivotal scenes. We are never given the details of the man’s confession, but through a passionate emotional language we are able to piece together the truth.
The action takes place on a minimal, yet realistic set. Grey and beige desks and file cabinets set the scene in an average police station office. The indifference of the set stands in contrast to pain and passionate revenge experienced by the characters. Real rain falls from the ceiling before the play begins, and continues in a window during the action. This is no cheerful Christmas play, and there are no plush blankets of snow decorating the window. Instead, the audience gets a dreary and unforgiving urban rainstorm. By being set on Christmas Eve, there is a certain urgency to the action. The bonds and love of family become more pronounced during the holidays, and the thought of losing loved ones becomes that much more heartbreaking.
Adamant theatregoers and those who haven’t yet been introduced to drama can all enjoy Butcher. Every one of the play’s 90 minutes was loaded with gripping suspense, philosophic themes, and emotional charge.
Butcher runs from Nov. 3 to Nov. 29 at the Centaur Theatre (453 Rue St. François-Xavier). Admission for students is $28.