“You ever hear of Joe Cooper? He’s a cop. A detective, actually. He’s got a little business on the side”.
Killer Joe Cooper is a policeman with a sideline career in contract killing. He is hired by the Smith family at the suggestion of 22 year-old Chris to kill estranged matriarch Adele, enabling them to cash in on her $50,000 life insurance policy, of which 20 year old Dottie is sole beneficiary. However, unable to settle his $25,000 payment in advance, Joe takes Dottie as a “retainer”, remaining in the Smith’s trailer until they can deliver his money…
American playwright Tracy Letts’ darkly comic thriller ‘Killer Joe’ returns to the stage in this bold, brutal and explicit revival at London’s Trafalgar Studios. Directed by Simon Evans, the production is an accurate realisation of Letts’ vision – unflinching, unyielding, unforgiving and unapologetic – exploring mature adult themes which make for a disturbing, but perhaps necessary, watch. Its stereotypical and exaggerated views of popular culture shock audiences into showing an acknowledgement, if not an understanding, of the kind of immorality and violence life all too often churns out, forcing us to sit up and take note of mankind’s potential for depravity, as we watch the moral unravelling of this family.
Set in a trailer park on the outskirts of Dallas, Texas, Letts’ work plays on the stereotypical ‘trailer-trash’ caricature, his characters grotesquely exaggerated. The production reflects the stigma associated with such areas, the richly detailed set fully addressing this – the interior of the Smith family trailer fills the entire stage – this is their world, and unfortunately, it is likely that it always will be, with little or no possible prospects for the their future. The fact that their trailer is flanked on either side by two adjacent trailers just shows that they are simply one family of many in such a predicament. In the intimate space of Trafalgar Studio’s Studio 1, the audience are fully immersed in their world, which offers no escape for either characters or audience. Rather unfairly, such areas are synonymous with the notion that such people are deserving of this way of life, their current predicament a consequence of their behaviour. However, in truth, whether the moral failing of such people is a consequence, or a cause, of their trailer living remains to be seen.
For the majority of the production, a television remains on in the corner of the living room, and merits much interaction from the cast, who turn it off and on, and change the channel, regularly. At one point in the production, Dottie is watching a cartoon – a Loony Tunes sketch of Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner, to be precise. When Chris attempts to turn the television off, Dottie tries to stop him,wanting to see how it ends. “He never catches the bird”, replies Chris bluntly.
Throughout the production, there is reference to another character and, although we do not see him, his manipulation of events proves highly significant, with tragic consequences for the Smith family. Rex is the boyfriend of Adele, and it was he who told Chris of her life insurance policy, (omitting the fact that the price is doubled in the event of accidental death) subtly planting a seed in Chris’ mind that would go on to see him hire Killer Joe in order to kill his mother. Ludicrous though it may seem, the skeleton of Letts’ rather outlandish story-line isn’t all that dissimilar to the cliched and archetypal plots of the aforementioned cartoon, which is simply adapted into a real-life setting, with the worst possible of consequences. Wily ‘Coyote’ Chris hatches an elaborate and dramatic plan but, outwitted by the elusive ‘Road Runner’ Rex, it backfires, the consequences for himself, and his family, devastating, with Rex set to reap the rewards. Whilst such an idea makes for a light-hearted and entertaining cartoon, the reality is quite different, and so much darker.
Orlando Bloom is outstanding as Killer Joe, walking a fine line between gentleman and sadist, seducing with his charm, then repulsing with his brutality. For the most part, his dominating and authoritative presence on stage is intimidating, his confident swagger and cool-headedness queasily unnerving. A misogynist, he speaks disparagingly of women, believing them to be generally deceitful and manipulative. However, in Sophie Cookson‘s innocent Dottie, he sees something different. Having asked for her as a mere down-payment, he then proceeds to seduce her over a tuna casserole, complimenting her and presenting her with flowers, which sounds like the ideal date, before we remember why he is really there. When being charming, he is exceedingly so, to the point where we, like Dottie, are drawn in, lulled into a false sense of security as we, just for a second, allow our guard to drop, and forget his true intentions. However, such moments are few and far between, particularly so during the second half of the production, and he can’t seem to help showing us his true colours, the man behind the nickname: a killer.
Living in a place that has become synonymous with immorality, surrounded by a family as dysfunctional as this one, it comes as a surprise that Dottie remains uncorrupted, a character of purity and innocence. However, despite her outward naivety, Cookson’s sterling portrayal proves that Dottie is arguably the most understanding character of them all, seeming to have a firmer and more clear-sighted view of events than her family gives her credit for. Having overheard Chris and Ansel plotting to kill Adele, she remarks that this is a “good idea”, and entreats Joe to reveal his method for doing away with her mother over dinner, suggesting that she has a maturity beyond her years, refusing to shy away from such brutality. She often emerges from her bedroom in a sort of daze, speaking ambiguously, before disappearing back into her room. She seems to see more than other characters, and reads between the lines to draw conclusions that no other can.
In a forced coming-of-age, Dottie is coerced into this very adult arrangement with Joe, exploited by her father and brother in an attempt to pacify him, a testament to the lengths people will go to in order to save themselves. Ansel arranges for his daughter to dine alone with Joe, without even her knowledge, let alone her consent, and Joe remains in the trailer, beginning a sexual relationship with her, thereby stripping her of her innocence and purity. She has not fallen prey to the immorality around her, she is thrown head first into the middle of it. However, we are soon left questioning the nature of their relationship. Although it begins as something so perverse, the result of Joe’s desire, we later wonder whether it does in fact grow into something more. Dottie herself seems captivated by Joe, remarking more than once that “his eyes hurt”. She seems enthralled by him, his eyes seeming to pierce her very soul, moving her, awakening something in her that she has never before experienced. Whilst he is drawn to her innocence, she appears drawn to him, possibly for his life experience. It appears as a rather disturbing imitation of Othello’s wooing of Desdemona in Shakespeare’s famous tragedy – “She loved me for the dangers I had passed, And I loved her that she did pity them”. Each seems captivated by the other, as though the lives of each is lacking in that which the other possesses. During a family meal towards the end of the play, Joe announces that the two have fallen in love with each other, which Dottie does not deny, and they plan to be married. The production is therefore one of many levels, the characters of Joe and Dottie more complex than they appear on the surface – we are not entirely sure what motivates them.
Dottie speaks of a pure love she shared at the age of 12 with a ‘fat’ boy, Marshall, whilst at school. Despite never spending time alone together, it appeared they had an understanding, sharing a secret ‘pure love’, which they didn’t speak of for fear of cheapening it, violating it, making it less than what it was. It needed no witnesses, no public demonstrations, it just existed between the two of them. The sexually inexperienced Dottie had her own perception of what love is and, whether a childish view or not, only she knows whether this is what she has with Joe, whether their relationship does in fact develop into something that transcends a mere infatuation, resulting from her sexual awakening, or whether she naively mistakes it as being more than it is. What is notable, however, is that she seems to make the first move physically. After changing into her ‘little black dress’ in front of Joe (he actually looks away as she reveals her nakedness, the nudity in the production handled very tastefully), she walks up behind Joe and buries her head in his back, before pushing her hips into his. Is this her way of hinting at her readiness to lose her virginity?
Unlike these characters, Chris, father Ansel and step-mother Sharla appear two-dimensional, exaggerated parodies of real-life people. Chris is a 22 year old drug dealer, Ansel drinks, and Sharla’s promiscuity is hinted at early on, before becoming explicitly apparent later in the play, each embodying the kinds of vices that wee rife in such trailer parks. Adam Gillen is magnificent as Chris. Fidgety and nervous, he passionately convinces his feeble-minded father – skilfully captured by Steffan Rhodri, opposite Neve McIntosh‘s perfectly deceitful Sharla – to hire a professional killer. A masterful and extremely talented actor, Gillen’s disquieting performance oozes intensity. In fact, all five actors give astonishing and powerful performances, equally strong across the board.
Bursting with an honest and raw brutality, Killer Joe makes for unsettling viewing, unapologetically pushing the boundaries of what might be considered appropriate subject matter for the theatre, in its visceral exploration of mankind’s potential for darkness and immorality which, even by today’s standards, are shocking. The production culminates with quite possibly the most explosive finale you’re likely to see in theatre right now, with monumental performances from its intense five-strong ensemble, in what is quite simply an acting masterclass.
A production that makes you want to look away, yet holds your gaze, meeting you head on, Evans clear and compelling direction highlights the very worst in human nature, implying that, when it suits our needs, a person will do just about anything in order to survive, and such instinctive, primal behaviour isn’t just limited to those living in trailer parks, or any impoverished area for that matter, but spans all people, everywhere – a chilling but blunt observation.