Bloodless: The Trial of Burke and Hare, is the inaugural presentation of Canada’s newest theatre company, the artist-led, story-driven Theatre 20. Established in 2011 to help foster the development of more original Canadian works, Theatre 20 has had many workshops and fundraisers but has yet to offer a fully staged musical production. In keeping with their mandate, Bloodless is a brave first offering, a new musical by Winnipeg playwright Joseph Aragon. The show was originally presented at the Winnipeg Fringe Festival and is enjoying its professional debut for the next three weeks at The Panasonic Theatre in Toronto.
Bloodless tells the tale of two Irish serial killers, WilLiam Burke and William Hare, living in Edinburgh in the 19th Century. Down on their luck and struggling to make ends meet, the two friends go into business selling corpses to medical anatomy schools. The show is loosely based on the true story of the 1829 West Port murders in Edinburgh, and is dark, twisted and at times, terrifying in its examination of the human spirit, morality and the slippery slope that starts someone off on an evil path.
The show had its fair share of speed bumps on its way to the stage, most notably the fact that it was originally slated to be directed by Theatre 20 founding artist Colm Wilkinson; however, Wilkinson was swapped for Artistic Director Adam Brazier and ended up serving as creative consultant instead. There were also several casting changes from its original workshops; including the departure of lead Jeff Madden.
Despite the shows' struggles, the end result is both brave, original and inspiring. The cast is outstanding, led by Evan Buliung’s Burke, the man who had the original idea to begin murdering guests in his lodging house and selling their corpses to the medical school. Watching Buliung descend into the depths of perverse darkness is one of the highlights of the production. His character takes the audience on a journey of the aforementioned ‘slipperly slope’, starting off rationalizing his horrid actions by only killing people who are ‘better off dead’, but quickly finding himself (and by extension his friend Hare) needing to bend that moral code more and more to cover up the murders they’ve committed. Eddie Glen is equally strong as his sidekick Hare, a man having a different kind of moral struggle as he questions his friend’s actions and his place in the dirty plot.
Trish Lindstrom and Jan Alexandra Smith bring much needed comedy and verbal sparring to Burke and Hare as their respective wives, with Lindstrom stealing many of her scenes with her quirky dark humour and physical comedic timing. Smith is equally impressive, standing out as an intellectual equal to Buliung’s Burke and finding herself mastermining some of the more gruesome attacks.
The highlight of the show; however, is Carly Street’s heart-wrenching prostitute Janet Brown, a woman seeking justice for her friend – a victim of Burke and Hare. Street, in her first Canadian outing since the Broadway production of Clybourne Park, is mesmerizing as she searches for answers following her friends disappeareance. She adds a layer of much-needed humanity to the story, and raises important questions of the value of a single life.
While the cast is uniformly strong, the show struggles a bit to find it’s footing and keep the audience engaged. The music is original and catchy, but (with the exception of a few numbers) lacks the punch needed to have the audience leaving the theatre humming along. The set is minimalistic, and the much lauded cadavour doesn’t quite generate the shock and awe that one would hope. That said, the performances are so stunning that they overcome the vast majority of areas in which the show falls a little bit short.
In fact, it’s those performances that should be celebrated when discussing Bloodless. Comparisons to Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd seem inevitable (and have certainly been made since the show debuted last Thursday) but are however, slightly unfair. Thematically the show bares certain resemblance to that classic; however, Bloodless is more human than Sweeney Todd, focusing more on the moral conundrums that the characters find themselves in and bigger questions such as the value of human life and all the grey that exists between society’s definitions of right and wrong. If Bloodless focused a bit more on those fundamental issues and less on the shock and awe of a musical about murder, Sweeney comparisons would likely start to fall away.