[The following is a somewhat ironic review of A History of Butchers, the play by M.A.D.]
My friend Dibyayudh had assured me that this was a ‘clean’ play that you could take your parents to. When I met him backstage, I told him that I couldn’t fault with the acting, and when I’d finished adding a couple of critical comments, I asked him why he’d said it was clean. I can’t say he was wrong when he laughed and said that you couldn’t do without at least a little profanity.
Before I continue, I solemnly inculpate myself of ignorance, dullness, and envy.
I was a little worried that they’d start before they started, like in A Good Play, but thankfully, the inception was much more formal. The alienation effect was under way right there, as the actress (or should one say ‘actor’?) dragged a speaker onto the stage, pausing to yank it forward. If you asked me what the play is all about, I might be able to answer you clearly: the leaflets left on the seats explained that Camus’s The Just Assassins was being adapted while being dehistoricised. Stepan jumps off the stage and wants to kill Putin, and people bring up things like the United Nations, et cetera. It’s worth mentioning here that the whole play is in English – not that it doesn’t have any right to be; of course it does; it’s just that we see Camus’s Russians speaking Indian English. I’m not sure if this aspect of the adaptation is a part of this ‘text’; I think I. A. Richards would argue that it is not.
As I explained to the playwright backstage, one never knows what to make of it all. It’s meta without being meta – all the confusion of A Good Play without its seeming deliberateness. Art need not require meaning, we may say with stern authority; but may not we try to read one meaning into a work of art? With A History of Butchers, you’ll never know where that meaning is. That in itself need not make the play bad, but when one rejects traditional notions of plot, action, and objectivity, the audience may reject traditional notions of clapping. Not that this one did, of course. I’m sure the halls were bursting with applause.
What is the point of it all? Characters converse among themselves, often swearing profusely (the audience loved it when Stepan used the F word), but what do we learn of them? Something, certainly. They are individuals with a past. But do I care? What if I did? I was never quite sure if the author wanted to trick me into caring to make a meta point later on, so I was wary of investing my feelings into it. I chanted ‘we want meat’ with the rest of them, but does this mean we are butchers? Or that butchers are us? Does it mean that the Grand Duke or Kaliayev are dead because we have killed him? And if it did mean that, is the play trying to subvert that meaning? The first half of the play is about Stepan coming back from Switzerland to yell, grumble, swear, and chew. He’s watchable, nonetheless. Boris, however, walks around looking Russian. Dora isn’t uninteresting, but for all her potential, she appears to be only passably memorable.
It should not be supposed that I’ve set out to make fun of this play. As I said, you can’t fault the acting. The way they placed a cup under the crucified Kaliayev and filled it with his blood, and the scene in which the Duchess holds his prostrate body, were quite good, or even exceptionally good. I liked the part where Kaliayev is playing with a ball and almost throws a grenade. The famous assassins in the background – Ezio included – were a nice touch. Stepan and Dora arguing towards the end were quite good. The final dialogue was very good, and made me wish the entire second act had been as well written.
Unfortunately, this was not to be. When the actors weren’t swearing profusely in the vernacular from near the lights, or in English on stage, the play meandered on and on, making me check my watch repeatedly. Emotionally charged scenes like ‘Come and see the blood in the streets!’ would be so much better if the play had its tonal highs and lows. Instead, we had angry shouting, and Absurdist farce, as well as a rather long scene where I kept thinking ‘Ilsa, She Wolf of the SS’. As I candidly explained to humble author, the ‘Jailhouse Rock’ scene was just bad. An Indian man pretending to be a white nationalist Southern American in a prison (in a play starring Indians in Russian roles) is unimpressively ironic. I’d already started checking my watch when he came in, and I kept checking it while he was there, singing. Times like this, you miss Bablu and Set Shankar.
The characters in general seemed hollow reflections of real people. Maybe it’s the slightly forced timelessness of the play, but the people on stage have a ‘here-this-instant-but-not-the-one-before’ quality that even Marlowe’s heroes did not have. Lifted not only from human existence, but from natural existence itself, they have, for the most part, just a little more substance than the cameos of Stan Lee in Marvel films.
To conclude – if indeed one may make so bold as to draw a structured conclusion to such a play, it is less a play or a drama than a spectacle, delivered with the ostensible purpose of condemning moral absolutism that leads to sadistic, immoral violence. With this comes a more pointed criticism of the methods of the 1905 assassins, which is used to comment on extremists in all places and ages. However, when it was all over, and the crowd was clapping harder than when Palpatine became Emperor (not that this play mentions it), I couldn’t help wondering if I should clap, or wait for more commentary. If only they’d toned down the metatheatre and shortened it to within an hour and a half.