The West End has been bathed in blood by two recent revivals. While Orlando Bloom stars as a killer cop in Killer Joe, Tracy Letts’ Texan-set tale of matricide, across town Aidan Turner – star of Poldark and owner of possibly the most lusted-over torso on British television – takes on a different title role, that of a psychotic Irish terrorist in Martin McDonagh’s 1994 blood-fest.
Turner’s Padraic is a self-styled “lieutenant” who rampages across the island of Ireland torturing here and bombing there in the name of Irish Republicanism. Through these random acts of violence, which are too extreme even for the island’s terrorist community, he has become known as “mad” Padraic. The IRA won’t have him, and now the splinter terror group the INLA wants him out.
Set mainly in an isolated, rural Inishmore cottage, the comedy fixes upon death from the outset. In the first scene, Padraic’s father Donny (Denis Conway) and hapless local lad Davey (Chris Waley) are contemplating Wee Thomas, a dead cat that Davey found while cycling along a local road. Mad Padraic had left the moggy – his “only true friend” – in the care of his father. Donny and Davey know that they will be sharing the blame for Thomas’ death, which could well bring about theirs.
Imagine an episode of the sitcom Father Ted in which every character might become the victim of a psychotic killer and you won’t be too far off from the blend of humour and tension that McDonagh generates here. Director Michael Grandage gets the balance between violence and comedy just about right, with the latter serving as an immediate antidote to the former.
In an early scene, Padraic tortures a small-time drug dealer who is suspended upside down in chains. Visually the scene is a nightmare. But McDonagh has a lot of fun with the warped sense of righteousness that underpins Padraic's violence. Though, of course, there is sadism too. The dealer has to choose which of his nipples he is to lose before the conversation turns into a cosy chat about how best to care for cats.
It turns out that Turner has the charisma to fill a stage, not just a TV screen. His Padraic is a highly convincing man-child whose moral compass was long ago spun by a violent father. Padraic remembers him trampling on his grandmother. It was a long time ago, points out Donny. “I don’t think there is a statute of limitations on grandmother trampling,” says Padraic.
It is this casual, conversational ease with which atrocity is spoken about – and undertaken – that is shocking and hilarious here. There is no better example than Mairead (Charlie Murphy), the air-rifle-toting tomboy whose love for Padraic is expressed in bullets expertly aimed at eyes – of cows she wants to protect (for no one is going to buy a blind cow at market) and humans who threaten Padraic.
Evoking laughter at the thing that appalls is a rare and particular skill of McDonagh’s and one that the dramatist has developed in Hollywood, most recently as the writer and director of Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
This earlier work out-Tarantinos Tarantino by a big margin. There will be those who doubt that its extreme violence can ever be justified. But even as the play descends into an orgy of bloodlust, McDonagh sees something noble in the attempt by damaged people to live by some kind of moral framework. Though he reserves contempt for them too. And even if his characters' moral compasses never exactly point north, the play’s is always true, pointing accusingly at violence itself.