A Butcher of Distinction – James Dalton directs Rob Hayes’ question of violence ‘out there’ or ‘in here’. (Theatre Review)

From the opening sentence in A Butcher of Distinction, instantly recognizable is the costumes worn by Liam Nunan and Heath Ivey-Law in their roles as Hugo and Hartley.  The boys wear all white-preppy-private-school-sports-day type clothing that instantly evoke Peter and Paul of Funny Games who themselves carried the specter of Alex of A Clockwork Orange in their costumes. This dramatic effect isn’t written into the original play by Rob Hayes and therefore informs the audience of a directorial focus on the part of James Dalton toward the young boys, who they are and how we, as an audience relate to them.


I don’t want to be mistaken – Rob Hayes wonderful play (more by this play write please) is all about violence and our relationship as an audience to it.  I’ve never seen such a violent piece of theater before and the whole ‘live’ experience adds much I can tell you. Without giving away any spoilers (because everyone must go and see this) Hayes has weaved a narrative that frightens the audience and forces them to relate to their own auto-response. Here is a very violent play that is also very funny. Here is a play about isolation and exclusion that references pop culture throughout (giving the illusion of inclusion). Here is a play about right and wrong that makes you start to wonder if there are degrees of rightness and degrees of wrong-ness.


The ‘boys’ clothes, however, add a new dimension to this already complex play. James Dalton in partnership with the very talented costume and set designer Dylan James Tonkin (check out his website here) brings the young men to the fore, setting them up as a special kind of meta narrative. Dalton uses the permissions of cultural references already in the script to extend the primary roles of Hugo and Hartley into a new version of the discussion of represented violence in our relationship with ‘entertainment’. One is reminded of Anne’s central question (in Funny Games) Why don’t you just kill us?  and Paul’s fateful answer, You’re forgetting about the importance of entertainment.


In Hanekes Funny Games (either version) we align ourselves with the innocent family, but have to deal with the ugly fact that something inside us wants to see them suffer. Dalton twists this, so that we find we never really knew who we were aligned with in the first place. Just as cinema is a manipulative dream space where we take relief from a certain kind of reality, theatre can be a terrifying look into a mirror.  When Haneke breaks down the fourth wall in Funny Games in order to inform us we are being given what we wanted, Dalton holds a mirror so that we are forced to realize we are looking at ourselves.


In A clockwork Orange (I’ll speak from the Kubrick film version of the book, just because I am picking up on the costume referencing) the question is one of moral ambiguity and the ‘rightness’ of manipulations to prevent immoral behavior. This is also one of the powerful themes of A Butcher of Distinction.  Where Haneke wants us to ask why we need to see the violence, Kubrick (channeling Burgess) wants us to ask who is really the victim here?  In something as simple as the boys clothes, these themes – so important to the play itself – are immediately front and center.  Even though we like Hugo and Hartley, we’re not ever 100% sure about them.  We can only tell everything is not as it seems.  We are waiting for them to seal their status as victims (Hanekes point) and when that is achieved, we are plunged into the moral dilemma of facing our desire for it in the first place. We have an attack of empathy (or its shadow, disproportionate anger) for Teddy (Paul Hopper) that we do not approve of. We want to put a stop to this moral impertinence (the civil war now raging within) and desire anything to relieve us from that stress. When it occurs (Kubrick / Burgess point) it is hardly the relief we were waiting for.


I’ve never seen the play performed under anyone else’s direction, but I will add that this focus on the boys and who they are inside of us, enhances what has been written already so that the theatre experience comes alive with shocking power. It is impossible to watch this play and not keep asking yourself who you are and why you felt what you felt five minutes ago. Rob Hayes cleverness lies in his constant referencing to the broader world. London is a place ‘out there’ that is frightening to these two young innocents and yet what has occurred in that cellar, past, present and future is far worse. Hayes question is where is violence born?  ‘Out there’ or ‘in here’? By referencing ‘out there’ in the clever and charming flow of his words, we discover ‘out there’ is not only lodged inside, but came from us in the first place anyway. If populations get the politicians they deserve, perhaps this is also true for our main stream culture.  Hayes drives this point through the fourth wall by using our own TV and film language against us.


A Butcher of Distinction is a must see theatre experience. This is the first time Hayes has been adapted for a Sydney audience and James Dalton has put together a fine production team, the standout being the aforementioned Tonkin who is a talented set designer. Despite the clarity of Dalton’s vision he has allowed for collaborative input, bringing Hayes great play to life. Liam Nunan and Heath Ivey-Law are chilling as the sweet twin brothers, perfect in their look, disarming in their shallow Fraser-esque verbose banter, rattling off televisions cuteness as if it were their own thoughts. Paul Hooper is a frighteningly vulnerable Teddy, at once perpetrator and victim, a man with so few choices he never has to think.


A butcher of Distinction is on at the Old 505. It’s there until the 26th of May.  Please don’t miss it. Grab tickets here.

All the images used in this review are credited to Lucy Parakhina.