Killer Joe at the Trafalgar Studios: ‘a study in sex, murder, and family dysfunction’

Starring Orlando Bloom, Killer Joe offers a meditation on morality. Sarah Gibbs weighs on how it can be tempting to root for the bad guy throughout this dark piece.

Tracy Letts may have titled his 1993 play Killer Joe, but Simon Evans’s new production at Trafalgar Studios could as well be christened ‘Faust in a Trailer Park’. It’s difficult to know who to root for in this amoral morality play. Despite generally strong performances, many scenes fail to resonate emotionally, and in the absence of relatable characters, it becomes far too easy to find sympathy for the Devil.

The action begins when dope dealer and perennial ne’er-do-well Chris Smith (Adam Gillen) demands entry to his father and stepmother’s home in a Texas trailer park. The young man’s mother has thrown him out, and he rouses his father, Ansel (Steffan Rhodri), with a proposition: hire detective and part-time hitman Killer Joe Cooper (Orlando Bloom) to murder the woman. Then, the family can collect her life-insurance money. The plotters summon Joe but fail to anticipate the man’s interest in Dottie (Sophie Cookson), Chris’s sleep-walking, day-dreaming younger sister. What follows is a study in sex, murder, and family dysfunction.

Orlando Bloom in Killer Joe. Photograph: Marc Brenner

Having been underwhelmed by Bloom’s recent film work, I had reservations about him stepping into a role through which Matthew McConaughey drawled with such menace on screen. Bloom, however, inhabits Joe’s social and sexual perversion with aplomb, and supplies the sense of coiled threat that the role demands. Cookson is capable as the child-woman Dottie, though her southern accent falters frequently. Dialect issues likewise dog Gillen, whose “Texas Tweaker” lapsed into “New York Mob Boss” more than once. The latter’s performance is exhausting to witness, a case of overacting out of proportion to his castmates’ more restrained efforts.

The play’s primary weakness is its lack of emotional anchor points. Despite Dottie’s tragic backstory—her mother tried to smother her as an infant—she resists audience identification and sympathy as her reactions to past trauma, as well as the acts of violence, murder and infidelity that surround her, are unaccountable. In theatre, the relationship between performer and spectator is typically one of emotional mirroring: the audience should feel with at least one of the characters, whose trials provoke some sort of purgative affective experience. As Dottie is emotionally inaccessible, and Joe is a psychopath, the audience remains in limbo, awaiting a decisive moment that will determine where it should bestow sympathy. Letts no doubt intends to foster a sense of moral ambiguity, but the correlative is a sense of indefinite suspension and disconnection.

Adam Gillen and Steffan Rhodri in Killer Joe. Photograph: Marc Brenner

It is in moments of extreme violence that the play’s elements at last cohere. The scenes of destruction are cathartic; the citadel of sexual and psychological perversion is razed. The violent episodes also highlight the show’s strong sound design. Subtly sinister notes herald Joe’s arrival at the trailer, and a brutal fight progresses to the strains of The Turtles’s “Happy Together.” Grace Smart’s set design is also superb: her cutaway trailer is a dynamic space that nonetheless communicates the claustrophobia of poverty.

Killer Joe is far from perfect in script or staging, but its core scenes possess a primordial power. The play is a stark reminder that you can invite the Devil in, but you can’t make him leave


Killer Joe will play at the Trafalgar Studios until the 18th August, 2018. 

Feature photograph credit: Marc Brenner

Sarah Gibbs is a graduate student pursuing a PhD in English Literature at University College London (UCL). Her writing has appeared in Descant, Filling Station, and Novelty magazines.

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