Academy Theatre, Mount Lawley
reviewed by Neville Cohn
For a number of years, civil liberties were suspended in the Argentine which at the time was under the control of a brutal military junta. Unspeakable crimes were committed, often with impunity, and the exact fate of many thousands of Argentinians will never be known.
Chris Edmund, in his latest play – The Butcher’s Dance – has given us a disturbing insight into that terrible era. But there is much else to engage the eye and ear in what is a many-layered offering.
Whether unintended or consciously sought, much of what leads up to a hideous confrontation between secret police and a Buenos Aires family has about it a dream-like quality where some of the dialogue sounds muffled and often rather difficult to make out, an effect exacerbated by an overlay of tango music at low decibel levels. The effect is to lull the observer, again perhaps unintended – but when appalling violence breaks out in Buenos Aires suburbia, the impact, by contrast, is all the greater. It is electrifying.
Edmund includes known figures in his tale. In a New York brothel, presided over by Polly Adler (a splendidly vulgar characterisation by Virginia Gay who gives us as flinty a Madam as one is ever likely to encounter on stage), we meet the acerbic Dorothy Parker well on her way to status as a bitchy alcoholic – and Robert Benchley (Martin Williams), that other habitue of the Algonquin Round Table. As well, we meet tango-meister Astor Piazzolla (Morgan David Jones). It’s the moment of Wall Street’s 1929 collapse with all the economic chaos and human misery that follow in its wake.
For much of the evening, one is conscious of a barely contained undercurrent of menace and violence. This theme of aggressive anger is early established as we watch a butcher hacking at a joint of meat, then a knife fight that breaks out between workers in late-19th century Buenos Aires. The events of 9/11 come frequently to the fore as well.
But the chief focus is on the horror unleashed on the Argentine by General Videla and his henchmen between 1976 and 1983.
We see a Buenos Aires family including a heavily pregnant woman at home as secret police arrive. They commit horrific assaults, primarily sexual, on both women and men. Edmund does not hold back here; unflinchingly, unsparingly, he reveals the shocking violence of the time and its ghastly aftermath.
Reinforcing the impact of these scenes is the knowledge that the events portrayed are not some fanciful essay in Grand Guignol but incidents of a sort that were all too frequent and all too real.
Perhaps inevitably, as we watch the acting out of brutal tyranny, Argentine-style, we think of more recent outrages torture and humiliation of prisoners in Abu Graib, for instance. Are the gross abuses of power in Iraq any less despicable and unacceptable as those which took place in the Argentine?
Are events in Iraq not even worse because a blind eye is turned to it by those cynical professors of humbug who pretend – and may even believe – that they are the white knights of democracy, ostensibly freeing the oppressed to enjoy the delights of USA-style enlightenment?
The Butcher’s Dance is not for the squeamish nor for those who prefer plays to have a chronological working out with a clear beginning and a logical end. Edmund’s offering is the antithesis of this formality; Butcher’s Dance is fragmentary and episodic, the viewer taken on a winding path along which we encounter, inter alia, a number of characters who come onstage alone and take the audience into their confidence.
One, in particular, lingers in the mind. She looks as if she might be an off-duty flight attendant, an American; her smugness, her ignorance and complacency are frightening, her uncritical and absolute belief in the rightness of the ‘American way’ appalling.
The confronting nature of much of The Butcher’s Dance is not for those whose idea of a good night at the theatre is
a couple of hours of lightweight, escapist mummery.
Society needs works such as Edmund’s, theatre that compels us to question what those in power are doing in our names.
Copyright 2005 Neville Cohn