Arts

Theatrical thriller Butcher asks, Do we want justice — or peace?

Butcher, Nicolas Billon’s funny, horrifying, serpentine stage thriller, premiered in Calgary last fall and is receiving six productions this season, is also a dead-serious philosophical drama that deals with international war crimes and the desire for revenge.

Nicolas Billon's hit play addresses the challenge of making dictators and warmongers pay

John Koensgen in the Toronto production of Butcher, a play by Nicolas Billon. (Dahlia Katz)

An old man shows up at a police station wearing a soldier's uniform and a Santa Claus hat, with a meat hook hanging around his neck. The image sounds like some kind of macabre New Yorker cartoon waiting for a witty caption. In fact, it's the opening premise of Butcher, Nicolas Billon's funny, horrifying, serpentine stage thriller.

Butcher, however, is no ordinary nail-biter. The hit play, which premiered in Calgary last fall and is receiving six productions this season, is also a dead-serious philosophical drama that deals with international war crimes and the desire for revenge. Its debut at Alberta Theatre Projects promptedThe Globe and Mailto give it a four-star review, but also ask the question: Can a play about torture and genocide be too entertaining?

Billon admits it's a razor-edge balancing act. "I wanted to use the thriller genre as a way to engage the audience's imagination," says the Toronto-based playwright. "As long as the gravity of the subject matter is not undermined by the entertainment value, I think it's a valid approach."

My mother in particular was a great fan of mysteries. And I think using that format may be one of the reasons why the play has done so well.- Nicolas Billon

Butcher unwinds with all the whiplash twists of a David Fincher film. The man in the Santa hat has been abandoned, drugged and disoriented, in the station lobby in the wee hours of Christmas morning. He speaks only an obscure Slavic language, so the detective on duty has called for an interpreter. He's also brought in a lawyer whose business card was impaled on the butcher's hook.

The shocking revelations that follow involve a civil war in an Eastern European country called Lavinia, gut-wrenching acts of violence and a group of vengeance-bent vigilantes known as the Fjurioji, or the Furies. And the old man's identity, which is that of a wanted war criminal, is the least of the play's mysteries — none of the characters is quite what they claim to be.

Inventing the fictional Lavinia (complete with its own language) was Billon's way of tackling the play's themes while avoiding commentary on a real-life war. "I wasn't interested in taking sides," he says, "or discussing the horrors committed during any particular genocide."

Michelle Monteith, Tony Naappo (background) and John Koensgen. (Dahlia Katz)

Instead, he wanted to address the frustrations that attend the long and sometimes inconclusive attempts to bring those accused of war crimes to justice. Butcher, which is set decades after the Lavinian conflict, calls to mind such figures as Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević, who died while still on trial, and Chile's Augusto Pinochet, who was arrested but eluded conviction until his death. The play asks whether, in crimes of such enormity, closure can ever be found without perpetuating the bloody cycle of revenge.

Billon says he felt the first stirrings of Butcher in 2006 but it took years to gestate. In the meantime, he wrote a trilogy of thought-provoking one-act dramas, Greenland, Iceland and Faroe Islands — which collectively won him a 2013 Governor General's Award — and adapted his first play, The Elephant Song, into a 2014 film starring Bruce Greenwood and Xavier Dolan.

During that time he decided to frame Butcher as a thriller, partly to avoid a didactic approach — "I hate those plays where, as Thornton Wilder says, you can hear the writer grinding his axe" — and partly because he loves the genre. "I grew up watching Hitchcock films," says Billon, 37, who was born in Ottawa and raised in Paris and Montreal. "My mother in particular was a great fan of mysteries. And I think using that format may be one of the reasons why the play has done so well."

Butcher's third production this season opens at Toronto's Theatre Centre on Wednesday. It's a partial remount of the Calgary staging that reunites acclaimed director Weyni Mengesha (Kim's Convenience, da Kink in My Hair) and most of the original cast.

Billon hopes that the play will not just thrill audiences, but also make them consider its core dilemma. "People should go away asking questions about how we can balance the need for peace with the desire for justice," he says, "and whether that's even possible."

Butcher runs to Nov. 14 at the Theatre Centre in Toronto; it will also be seen at Centaur Theatre in Montreal, Nov. 3-29; Prairie Theatre Exchange in Winnipeg, Nov. 19-Dec. 6; and the Great Canadian Theatre Company in Ottawa, March 3-13, 2016. 

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