Courage to Kill is an intimate show, taking place entirely in one room, a downstairs dining area of an unnamed man’s house. His ailing father has been staying with him, and will be indefinitely. Courage to Kill examines their fraught relationship and in doing so poses questions about family, courage and cowardice, and paternity.
A brilliant and distinctive feature of plays at La Mama is their openings. As the audience files in, the stage is set and more often than not a character is already inhabiting the space. These often give a succinct but poignant introduction to the character. In the case of Courage to Kill, the Son is at the table, frantically cutting out bits and pieces of newspapers and magazines. The walls of the room are covered in these clippings. Their purpose is never revealed, much like many of the play’s darker elements.
The first act of the play is occupied only by the Son and his Father. From the opening minutes, they are hurling accusations and insults at each other, yelling back and forth and pacing anxiously around the confined space. Interestingly enough, it is the first act that throws the audience head first into their relationship and the second which provides the context for how it came to be this way. Both of the characters are utterly unlikeable. Obviously, this isn’t an inherently bad thing – some of the best characters ever written are despicable people – but the writing isn’t good enough to generate any real investment. Instead, it’s two unbearable men accusing each other for all their own problems. At times, the dialogue is genuine and there are interesting moments of tension: the Son’s insistence that his Father had an affair right before his mother died and the subsequent denial, is an incredibly dynamic scene and it seems to capitalise on their problematic relationship more than any other. However, these moments are too inconsistent, and too frequently written without purpose, to have any severe impact.
The second act turns things up a notch, and it’s largely due to the fact that a third character is introduced. The Son’s semi-girlfriend, Radka, discussed in the first act, appears for dinner. She seems to grasp the absurdity of the whole situation, and as such, acts as a sympathetic character for the audience, who are also trying to make some sense of this scenario. Radka’s presence is a catalyst for more of the arguments and bitter competitiveness from the father and son; both vie for her attention ruthlessly and use her as a pawn against the other. This dynamic provides a far more interesting and emotional insight into the true state of both of these men, and she also provides an at least somewhat likeable character, to juxtapose the utter spitefulness otherwise present.
The latter half of Courage to Kill is definitely its strongest, and the last 20 minutes of the play are incredibly tense and riveting. The drama elevates from arguments about hypothetical questions to very real and very frightening levels of intensity. The themes consistently returned to over the course of the show are all revisited with renewed energy, and when there is finally some action after the building sense of dread, its results are harrowing and astonishing.