The headlines are out: The nudity in the London stage production of “Killer Joe” includes a scene where movie star Orlando Bloom, with his back to the audience, proudly shows off his bare buttocks.
The actor’s rumored girlfriend Katy Perry saw a trailer for the Trafalgar Studio show and tweeted: “I need a season pass for that ass.” She followed that exclamation not by deleting the post but by saying it was meant to be sent privately. (So that’s all right then.)
If that is not enough shock value, “Killer Joe” parades some pretty controversial content for this increasingly politically-correct age.
Bloom’s character Joe Cooper recklessly seduces a virginal 20-year-old with learning difficulties and forces her to strip. Joe later gets her stepmom to do unmentionable things with a chicken leg that he holds at thigh level. If this brings new meaning to the Kentucky-fried slogan “finger licking good,” it also recalls the 2011 “Killer Joe” movie with its tagline: “A totally twisted deep-fried Texas redneck trailer park murder story.” That sums it all up very nicely.
Killer Joe is a corrupt cop and a well-known contract killer. If this combination seems a little incredible — how long before he gets caught by one of his fellow detectives? — you just have to look at Joe’s steely glance not to argue. He can threaten people just by looking at them. There is a scene of showy violence toward the end in which one character is thrown into the refrigerator and shot.
In actual fact, the greatest message of Tracy Letts’s debut play of 1993 probably lies away from these headline-grabbing bits of violent contention, although the characters’ attitudes directly lead to them.
This is a spiky little parable about small-town America. Everyone who arrives is at risk of being savaged by T-Bone, described in the stage notes as “a neighbor’s pit bull with a bad attitude and a chain a few links too long.”
Much the same could apply to Killer Joe, who comes into the picture only a little way into events. First, failed amateur drug-dealer Chris Smith (Adam Gillen) comes up with the idea of killing his estranged mother for her life insurance money. She is divorced from Chris’s impoverished father Ansel (Steffan Rhodri) who accepts the idea, as does his second wife Sharla (Neve McIntosh). Sharla initially appears knickerless from her bed as Chris arrives unexpectedly at nighttime, giving as a lame excuse for her nudity: “I didn’t know who you were.”
Gillen plays Chris as brim full of remorse and humility, a man who has spent his life being knocked into submission and dodging beatings. His bent stance is perhaps a little too much a cross between Gollum, a cur and a Texan Uriah Heep. Such over-the-topness might work for playing Mozart, as he did in “Amadeus.” Not here.
Chris has a thing for his brain-damaged and troubled younger sister Dottie. She declares, “I had a boyfriend in the third grade, but I never told nobody. His name was Marshall and he was fat. But he loved me.” She adds: “we didn’t see each other alone.” Sophie Cookson beautifully captures her childlike naivete. Dottie’s family happily offer her to Joe as a deposit for the $20,000 assassination job, even justifying it: “y’know, it might just do her some good.” Dottie’s shy awkwardness over orders to take off her clothes is so well portrayed that it is almost painful to watch. It is perhaps worse than that simulated sex scene with the fried chicken leg witnessed later.
If the southern accents could occasionally do with work, the play has a lot going for it. British actor Bloom, 41, is back on the West-End stage for the first time in a decade. He confidently broadens his role beyond Will Turner in “Pirates of the Caribbean” and Legolas in “The Lord of the Rings” — arguably too confidently. Joe is the most confident person you will ever meet, an avenging angel with a perfectly toned body – much too perfect for this Dallas dead-end Hicksville. Actually, Joe is more of a handsome devil than angel. He is slow talking, slow walking and with a character that changes little throughout. If you know you are better than everyone else around you, why try harder? Bloom works well with this script to suggest Joe’s growing affection for Dottie and he delivers a memorable performance.
The play has a male playwright and male director. Its male characters treat women like slaves or whores. Some critics will doubtless get tied up in knots about how nasty, sexist or repugnant the storyline may be. But one hopes that there is always an argument that it is sometimes right to depict nastiness in life in art so that we can learn from it.
The British tabloids may be breathless just about the nudity. One hopes that we will always look beyond the superficial to see what the play says. These are poor ordinary folks simply struggling to survive. Their “trailer-trash” parochial values are marinated in booze and bombarded with TV junk such as adverts for hokey evangelists, horror flicks and monster truck rallies. They have little education or manners yet still say grace before meals and are naturally suspicious of outsiders and foreigners. They will blindly follow anyone, such as Joe, who says he has a solution to all their problems. It has a darkly disturbing new relevance in this era of Donald Trump.
At Trafalgar Studios 1, 14 Whitehall, London SW1A 2DY, through August 18 only.
Founder Louise Blouin