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I loved everything about Killology – except the sadistic video game at its heart

If a play aspires to say something about masculinity, violence and morality, it should treat its subject with interest and respect.

What does it feel like to kill someone – and not only kill them, but torture and degrade them in the most creative way possible? And why would anyone want to do such a thing? On the surface, that is the question asked by Gary Owen’s new play, Killology, performed in a sparse black set at the Royal Court’s tiny Jerwood Theatre Upstairs. It begins with Alan – grizzled, bearded, Irish – describing how he has scammed his way into an expensive but filthy flat by pretending to be the gasman. His opening monologue concludes: “I’m in. Now I just have to sit tight. And wait for the man I’m going to murder.”

Only we don’t get to meet that man, not straight away, because instead Davey takes the stage. A tall young man in a tracksuit, he tells us how his father rarely visited him, but once brought him a dog, Maisie, and asked if young Davey would like to stay with him some time. Yes, he said, perhaps too eagerly, and his monologue ends: “Of course, that was the last time I saw him. That was the last time I saw him for years.”

The final character is Paul, who announces his character with a shiny blue suit with trainers and a T-shirt and the words: “Here’s an interesting factoid.” This is great writing: the guy has spoken only four words and already I think he’s a prick.

Paul, it transpires, is a computer-game designer whose father is endlessly disappointed in him. On his birthday, after one casual dismissal too many, he rewrites his beat-’em-up game to include his father’s face, and pounds it mercilessly until he dies. This inspires his wildly successful next game, Killology, in which you get points for murders, the more sadistic the better. “Say you’re executing a victim. You shoot him in the heart, quick and clean – gets you a point. But you shoot him in the guts, so he dies slowly – a hundred points!” There’s even a “golden shower mini-game” where players use their controller to urinate on their victim as they die.

At this point, I felt deeply uneasy. Not because of the play’s graphic content, but because I wondered if I’d been hit on the head and woken up in 1995. The debate about whether violent games lead to real-life violence dominated the period when the medium first became widely successful. But now it feels like a strange period piece, like a play interrogating whether MySpace is causing teenagers to become more self-involved.

The bogeyman Gary Owen surely had in mind is Grand Theft Auto, in which you can run over pedestrians with abandon, but: a) the most recent instalment of that came out in 2013, and b) it has always been an outlier in revelling in gratuitous violence. Most shooter games are careful to dehumanise your enemies (making them aliens, zombies or Nazis often does the trick) and to present the battle as a fair fight. Sadism is not only offensive, but boring. That scene just made me think that Owen doesn’t understand the appeal of games.

You might think I’m nitpicking, but this does matter: if a play aspires to say something about masculinity, and violence, and morality, then it should treat its subject with interest and respect. (A better villain for 2017 might be internet forums such as 4chan, where young men plot casually sadistic acts such as bombarding an epileptic journalist with flashing images on Twitter.)

At least Owen resists glibness elsewhere: after all, it is Alan, who doesn’t play games, who commits the only onstage violence. The characters are beautifully drawn, each with his own rhythms and speech patterns, and all are well cast. Siôn Daniel Young in particular gives a heartbreaking performance as Davey, poised on the edge of manhood, struggling to mask his vulnerability with brittle bravado.

As the action develops, the monologues occasionally collide into two-handed scenes, and for a while it’s hard to know what is real. We also get a sense of the moments when a life takes one path or another, and how love can curdle into hate. Killology is a brutal, brilliant play, and I loved everything about it except . . . well, Killology.

Runs until 24 June. For more details visit: royalcourttheatre.com

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 08 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Election special

Stavros Damos for the New Statesman
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Val McDermid Q&A: “I have great respect for Nicola Sturgeon”

The crime writer on her heroes, joining a band and winning Mastermind. 

Val McDermid is the author of 39 books, the majority being crime fiction. She was the first student from a Scottish state school to attend St Hilda’s College, Oxford. She also sponsors the McDermid Stand at Raith Rovers’s football ground, named  in honour of her father, a club scout.

What’s your earliest memory?

Sitting on my father’s shoulders in the town square in Kirkcaldy at Christmas time. I remember the impossibly tall Christmas tree covered in lights. And there was a coin-operated machine about the size of a table football game that featured plastic figures of pipers and drummers moving back and forth to the tinny sound of “Scotland the Brave”.

Who was your childhood hero?

Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen were my heroes. I’m not much given to hero worship, but I still admire them both.

What political figure, past or present,do you look up to?

I had considerable admiration for the late John Smith. I think he would have made very different choices from those of Tony Blair. And I do have great respect for Nicola Sturgeon.

What was the last book that changed your thinking?

Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways opened my eyes to the reality of life for many of the immigrants who come to this country; the price they pay and the persistence they show in trying to make a decent life for themselves and their families. It puts a human face on the empty posturing of so many politicians.

What would be your Mastermind specialist subject?

The life of Christopher Marlowe – the same as it was last time, when I won.

In which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live?

I’m happy where I am. Chances are, any other time or place, I’d be a lowly peasant with no way out.

What TV show could you not live without?

It’s a toss-up between University Challenge and Only Connect.

Who would paint your portrait?

I’m currently sitting for a longitudinal drawing by Audrey Grant, an Edinburgh artist. It’s a fascinating process.

What’s your theme tune?

“First We Take Manhattan” by Leonard Cohen. It’s got energy and indomitability. It’s about not giving up or giving in.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? Have you followed it?

Early in my career, I asked Sara Paretsky for advice. She said: “Never do anything that isn’t tax deductible.” I’ve done my best to stick to that.

What’s currently bugging you?

How long have you got? Almost every element of Westminster politics, for starters…

What single thing would make your life better?

A clone to do the stuff I don’t want to.

When were you happiest?

I’ve never been happier than I am now.

If you weren’t a writer, what would you be?

I’d like to think I could have been a singer-songwriter. I’ve recently started performing again in a band with a bunch of friends – Fun Lovin’ Crime Writers – and it’s the best fun I’ve had in ages.

Are we all doomed?

It’s hard not to think so, but I remain optimistic.

“Insidious Intent” by Val McDermid is published by Little, Brown on 24 August

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear