Men of Tortuga is a sharp, pacy thriller set in an anonymous corporate suite where three executive types plot the assassination of an enemy. There’s Maxwell (Gerry O’Brien), the senior leader, ideologically opposed to the man he intends to kill and once committed to his action, inflexible. There’s Kling (Dermot Magennis), the hungry, fiery, explosive type: quick to react, but not without the capacity to re-think. Finally there’s Avery (Steve Wilson), a leader-in-waiting: seemingly hesitant, seemingly friendly, but equally capable of decisive action to the point of murder. These three men have engaged military consultant Taggart (Stewart Roche) to ‘take out’ their unnamed nemesis at the point of a major, unspecified deal (the word ‘nationalise’ is used, but only briefly and perhaps not even by way of giving a hint), and the play begins with a discussion of how the trajectory of any sniper bullet will be changed by cutting through reinforced glass, so a ‘surgical strike’ of the action movie variety is not an option. The real question, Taggart explains, is how important is the goal, and therefore collateral damage becomes a question of percentages. Why not take out the building?
When first performed in 2005, Jason Wells’ piece must have seemed a self-evidently allegorical representation of Bush-era America and the Second Gulf War. Its refusal to get specific about the particulars of the corporations or the matter which has become literally life and death, beyond references to ideological opposition and intractable hatred, made it definitively analytical of the moral, psychological, and social landscape of America after 9/11. It must be taken as a sign of the success of Wells’ refusal of detail that it also works very well now as a profile of the destructive and cynical mind of the piratical, psychopathic capitalism of the Global Recession. This is most chillingly evident near the end as Avery contemplates the public exposure of the conspiracy first with panic, then growing composure and the certainty that “We’ll weather this”. Quite.
There’s enough textual and thematic density for a pleasing beard-stroke here, but really the play delivers best as a tightly wound genre piece. The language is crisp and precise, with staccato delivery, semantic ellipses, and occasional dialogue overlaps that scream David Mamet. It requires a committed performance ethic to pull off though, and this makes the Focus the perfect home for it. In the hands of a company less interested in making these roles come alive, it could slide into easy farce instead of black comedy, or worse, into silly and meaningless cliché instead of archetypal allegory. Thankfully, Purple Heart do not let this happen.
Gerry O’Brien is a stately presence as the leader for whom the best deal is no compromise at all. His performance, along with Dermot Magennis as the explosive one, make every action and speech into a living moment experienced as the present. The characters seem to think in real time. This generates a great deal of the necessary tension to hold this together as a genre piece. The other performers, including also Les Martin as Fletcher, mediator and author of a compromise document who becomes the unwitting focus of Maxwell’s philosophical musing as he faces extinction, are a little less assured. Martin works hard with a fairly large amount of complex and subtle shifts in register as his character undergoes various degrees of pressure and endures threats to his emotions, ideals, and eventually his life. It’s not always clear where his centre is though. Wilson comes into his best when his character is most resolute, but his early scenes of nervy obsequiousness feel more forced. Roche is solid enough taking a slightly self-parodic angle on the straight-arrow mercenary. He’s more Buzz Lightyear than Frederic Forsyth’s Jackal, and doesn’t generate much of a feeling of physical menace, but his calm descriptions of techniques of murder and destruction are chilling enough. That also kind of works in context though, so the ship sails steadily through genre waters and works as storytelling. It’s a gripping thriller that entertains.
Director John O’Brien concentrates on clarity and pace. The set is fairly straightforward and again highly abstracted - a map of the globe, the world as a mini-bar, a classical bust on a pedestal, a big desk, a big couch, a suggestion of tinted glass windows - symbols of an inhabited space creating a setting, but providing locus only in the broadest terms. David Gillespie does get to provide one standout (and comic) moment in his soundscape, as everyone in the room begins checking their mobile phones for messages to a cantata of bips, beeps, pops, and whirls that can’t but elicit a smile. The engine of the play is its simple narrative tension though, and O’Brien keeps everything driving forward at just the right pace to register the deeper meaning without inviting us to become lost in metaphor.
Dr. Harvey O'Brien lectures at the O'Kane Centre for Film Studies, University College Dublin.