I chatted to directors Joe Spence (Killer Joe) and Riss Obolensky (Free Fall) about their upcoming shows at the Corpus Playroom
Could you briefly introduce your shows?
Joe: Killer Joe was written in the early 90s by a guy called Tracy Letts, who has since won the Pulitzer Prize for subsequent work, and it tells the story of a family who hire a contract killer to murder their estranged mother. With disastrous consequences. It’s a darkly funny piece with a slightly sitcom-ish sensibility to it, but it does make a profound point about the self-destructive capitalist foundations of American society.
Riss: Free Fall tells the story of two strangers who meet on a bridge in the dead of night and spark up a conversation that’s geared towards anxieties about modern Britain. One of these strangers is trying to kill herself, the other is just doing his job on the tollbooth. They are two very relatable characters who air many issues relevant to young people today, covering things like mental health, unemployment and bleak future prospects. It was written last year and this is only the second time it’s been performed.
So, why a joint preview?
Joe and Riss (together): Because we’re best pals.
Joe: Oh no, but seriously, I think both of our shows exhibit nations on the brink of total collapse through the plight of the individuals represented.
Riss: That’s just so eloquently put, isn’t it. Essentially, both our shows are so hard hitiing given that each nation (the UK and USA) they reflect is in a state of unease at the moment.
Joe: That’s absolutely right, and it’s disturbing considering that Killer Joe was written 1993 and it’s still so current. What that suggests is a sort of stagnation, or even escalation, in American society over the last twenty years – if you look at statistics, the wealth gap has gotten even more pronounced and people are living with even greater levels of inequality and violence and a deep-rooted unfairness within the American system. Indeed, they adapted this play to film as late as 2011 and if it didn’t still have something say, this wouldn’t have seemed worthwhile or relevant.
These shows both seem very dark but it sounds like there’s a lot of humour in them?
Riss: In terms of the funny side, it’s very much a comment on human nature when it’s pushed to the edge; when people are in dire situations, they are still able to find humour around them despite their dismal conditions. That’s a very poignant aspect of being human. The play is constantly shifting between these two extremes of tragedy and comedy (ish). Any clichés are undercut with something hilariously scathing from each character- not only does that overarching tone draw us closer to the characters, breaking down those sometimes alienating boundaries, it also makes them quite endearing to watch.
Joe: What Killer Joe asks us to do is to look at some very unpleasant and desperate people and to laugh, maybe, but at the same time to reflect on our response to them. Every joke revolves around propulsion into a hopeless, nihilistic situation, and the response it creates is very interesting. People often do something very funny followed by something absolutely repugnant, and that juxtaposition shows that it’s not innocent humour and that the audience should be self-aware when they react to it.
How do the characters articulate the serious issues in these plays?
Riss: I guess by having two different individuals who express totally different problems regarding the state of the nation, and presenting these different problems as equally valid. This is really just part of the struggle of actually justifying the way that we feel about our social system. The very act of grappling with them and making them equally as problematic just shows how deeply rooted and complex the flaws in our social system are, and the individual consequences that these flaws bring about.
Joe: In Killer Joe’s case, the flaws in the American educational system reveal themselves with a lot of force; with the exception of the detective-cum-contract killer, Killer Joe, the characters struggle to express themselves and I think much of the rage in the play stems from that. What that does mean, however, in the case for example of Dottie, the innocent daughter of the family, is that her innate emotional intelligence expresses itself in surprising and poetic ways, which have a somewhat imagistic quality to them – there is a simplicity yet profundity to her dialogue.
To finish off, why should people come and see your shows?
Joe: It’s dark, it’s funny and it represents a demographic and a theatrical style not seen often in Cambridge theatre.
Riss: It’s an important play. It gets people thinking, and without sounding too wanky, I believe that’s precisely what theatre should be doing.
Killer Joe and Free Fall both run at the Corpus Playroom this week.