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9 June 2017updated 12 Jun 2017 1:26pm

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.

By Helen Lewis

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.

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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.

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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

This article appears in the 07 Jun 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Election special