Killer Father Ted [by Andrew Parker]
If you knew nothing at all about Ireland or its people then chances are a trip to see Mark Power’s play The Slapdash Assassin would get you up to speed, or at the very least deter you from visiting anytime in the immediate future. One half of the Basement’s ‘Murder Season’, Assassin is a blackly comic microcosm of the country’s sociological make-up, tackling religion, terrorism and politics in a fashion which is half-way between Father Ted and Reservoir Dogs. It’s a play where the humour is used to excoriate, cutting to the heart of modern Ireland and laughing, perhaps a little ruefully, at the darkness within.
The titular assassin is Jeremy Elwood’s Jerome, to whom we’re first introduced covered in the shit of man he’s just messily killed. This is dealt with so matter-of-factly it takes a couple of minutes to fully grasp what’s happening; his grandfather’s first reaction is to tell him to stay outside until he can lay down a tarp. Violence is clearly as much a part of the texture of this household as the somewhat dated furniture and faded photographs. Sex, though, is a bit more eyebrow raising. This is shown when Jerome’s cousin Vincent returns home from Las Vegas with that most awkward accessory for a Catholic priest, a new wife. The fact that this causes more consternation than Jerome’s habit of murdering people proves the blunt end of a sophisticated argument about the relative comfort we take in brutality as opposed to sexuality. Vincent agonises over his decision. Jerome appears decidedly relaxed about his chosen career – even when it turns out that his decision to execute some IRA lackeys a year earlier has had some unexpected repercussions.
The Slapdash Assassin is a small-scale play that nevertheless tackles some wide-ranging themes in pleasing depth. There’s a marvellous debate about religion in the second act and its role in human development – “you don’t go from apes to atheism without religion” Bishop Gus (a brilliantly arch John Watson) opines at one point. But Power’s real interest is in violence as both a cause of and solution to life’s problems. Despite his habit of slaughtering people, Jerome is not an individual defined by aggression. This is in contrast to both his granddad Seamus – a retired police inspector who has given Jerome his bloody mission – and Uncle Pod, who has never killed anyone personally but who can still write off human life, in great quantities, with alarming ease. The question is can Jerome, a killer with a social conscience of sorts, ever be the solution to Pod? Or are two wrongs going to make a really, really big wrong by the end?
If that sounds heavy, then know that Power handles it all with astonishing lightness. Assassin is a very, very funny piece of work, throwing jokes at its audience so rapidly and so consistently that the quieter, darker moments stand out all the more clearly because of it. This isn’t a sign of tonal inconsistency. While proceedings lean a little toward sitcom territory at times Power keeps it from tipping over and the levity and misery mesh nicely.
The performances are uniformly superb, even if the accents wobble in one or two cases. Elwood is magnificent as Jerome, his wit and bluster hiding a deep sadness, while Damien Avery gives him perfect foil as the much more morally tortured Vincent. There’s perhaps a slight lack of room in the script to give Seamus the space to explain why he has taken the actions he has, but Mick Innes handles the character well. Stephen Papps successfully makes Pod seem a credible danger while Chelsea McEwan-Millar makes Vincent’s new wife Grace a strong presence, subtly hinting at some subdued pain that becomes crucial to the conclusion. The production itself is skilfully directed by Patrick Davies, with only one point toward the end where practicality demands a crucial confrontation takes place half off-stage feeling a little awkward.
While heavily focused on Irish anxieties The Slapdash Assassin is a story with a certain universality. Can you make the world better just by clearing out the bad? As the conclusion deftly asserts, maybe, but it’ll always take some of the good down with it. A viciously intelligent piece of entertainment.
The Slapdash Assassin plays at The Basement until 8 March. Details see The Basement.