Butcher – a linguistic enigma

One Christmas Eve, an old man is found outside a police station with a butcher’s hook around his neck. The story only gets more shocking and surprising from there, as both the characters and the audience struggle to figure out what exactly will come next.

The dark crime thriller Butcher runs March 20–31 at the Cultch Theatre.

Twists and turns

Kevin McKendrick. | Photo courtesy of Prime Cuts Collective

Written by Canadian author Nicolas Billon, Butcher is neither clear nor simple and director Kevin McKendrick sees that as one of its driving forces.

“I think it’s trying to take the audience on a journey,” he says, “where up to a certain point they feel one thing and think they know what is going on. But then in the next moment they question what they believe and the tables turn immediately… then they might have to reconsider how they feel about a character or a situation.”

Butcher casts a foreboding presence onstage, and while not much blood is spilled (at least not in front of the audience), the suggestion of violence is ever-present.

“Essentially,” McKendrick says, “the play is about the nature of justice: what’s the relationship between justice and revenge? We want people to leave the theatre arguing about whether what happened should have happened, about whether the people involved deserved it.”

Although the play deals with justice, McKendrick stresses that this is not a political show. It is a thriller, and its twists and turns provide an opportunity to think inwardly as the action moves across the stage.

“Our job in theatre,” he says, “is to provoke people, to get them out of their comfort zone, but in a non-threatening environment. You should be challenged to think of things differently, wrestle with issues that are not confronting you personally. That is the value of theatre: to help us wrestle with big issues in a safe environment.”

Hidden words

Dragana Obradović (left) and Christina Kramer (right). | Photo by Diana Tyszko

The mysterious nature of the play rests on of one of its central characters, the man found outside the police station who only speaks Lavinian. Lavinian is a unique Slavic language, created specifically for this play and exists only in the world of Butcher.

“Nicolas [Billon] didn’t want the explication of the violence to be the driving principle of the play,” says Christina Kramer, Professor of Slavic Linguistics at the University of Toronto. “He wanted it to be masked somehow. Lavinian is one of the filters through which it is masked. It’s incomprehensible, but it’s not meant to be confusing.”

Kramer was first approached by Billon out of the blue. He told her that he was working on a play, that he would need a Slavic-y sounding language in it, and asked for her help. Kramer agreed, but creating Lavinian turned out to be much harder than anticipated. She tried to simply combine elements of Slovenian with features of Bulgarian, but it just didn’t work.

“I thought it was impossible,” Kramer says, “so I went to a colleague, and I asked her to translate all the words we needed for Lavinian (about 1000) into a combination of Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, etc., and from there switch individual letters around to create this language.”

That colleague was Dragana Obradović, a fellow professor at the University of Toronto, and a co-creator of Lavinian. But the translation technique mentioned above again failed to provide a good enough language, so Kramer and Obradović decided to try something drastic: destroy the root structure, the basic building blocks of language, and start more or less from scratch.

“By destroying the root structure,” says Kramer, “it would be a language with no history. We went back in and created an etymology for every single word. Some words are Slavic-based, some are English words turned into Slavic, and some are made up but on the Slavic soundboard.”

The result is a language that no one, not even the actors themselves, actually understand. Slavic language speakers could recognize it as being from the same family, but the words themselves stay out of reach.

McKendrick sees this as a worthwhile challenge for audiences in terms of relaying meaning.

“It’s one of the fun parts of the play,” he says. “The audience is trying to figure it all out just as much as the cop and the lawyer are. It shouldn’t be confusing; it should be that they’re actively trying to figure it out.”

For more information, visit www.thecultch.com.