Reviews West End & Central Published 6 June 2017

Review: Killology at the Royal Court

25th May - 24th June 2017

The absence of love: Lee Anderson reviews Gary Owen’s new play at the Royal Court.

Lee Anderson
Killology at the Royal Court. Photo: Mart Douet.

Killology at the Royal Court. Photo: Mart Douet.

I am a cold-blooded killer. Rarely has a week gone by without me sneaking up on guards and garrotting them with fibre wire. I have killed, and pilfered my victim’s clothes before dumping their naked bodies in waste disposal chutes. That’s not to mention the countless car hijackings, bludgeoning and frenzied joyrides for laughs. Sure, I briefly took a stint as an Italian plumber, leaping over mushrooms and jumping down big green pipes, but this soon became boring and I resorted back to my vicious ways. What makes it even worse is that I feel no remorse. On the contrary: I enjoyed it. You could say it’s therapeutic. Soothing, even. Maybe this makes me a bad person, but at the end of a long, tiresome day, there’s nothing quite so relaxing as slouching in front of the television, picking up a joystick and massacring your way through an endlessly regenerating sequence of human shaped pixels.

Violence is currency in the video game world. Mario and Sonic will always occupy a place in the childhood corners of our hearts, but its bullets and blood that set pulses racing. In Gary Owen’s taut and tense three-hander, this virtual bloodletting brings fame and fortune to Paul (Richard Mylan) – a fledgling entrepreneur and video game designer with some serious Daddy issues. Paul’s ‘eureka moment’ culminates in ‘Killology’ – a torture simulator in which players rack up points by executing their victims in increasingly sadistic and elaborate ways.

Those of us familiar with the open-world playgrounds of Grand Theft Auto and Manhunt will know the score here. This is a game that allows its players free reign to indulge in whatever twisted fantasy takes their fancy. But ‘Killology’ is different. Shorn of narrative frills or character development, questions of motivation become redundant. For Paul, it’s all about the kill. He claims he’s giving the buying public what they want – entertainment, pure and simple. With ‘Killology’, Paul is taking video game violence to its logical endpoint and boiling it down to its essential core: Find. Torture. Kill. Repeat. But what happens when simulated slayings start to inspire real-life atrocities? Does virtual sadism nourish genuine bloodlust?

If you go in to Killology expecting a staged argument along these lines, you might be disappointed. I for one was relieved. Owen is too good a writer and too acute an observer of human relationships to simply rehash such a familiar debate, even if it has gained new urgency in age of VR headsets and 360-degree media envelopment. While Owen occasionally kicks these questions about over the course of Killology’s two-hour running time, the question of violence as recreation serves another purpose. It is the absence of love and the human need for kinship that underlies the pain and suffering in this most dark and disturbing of the playwright’s works.

One of the most surprising aspects of a production that deals with the relationship between virtual and real-world violence, is its unfussy directness of approach. Choosing to avoid the now predictable use of video design that often accompanies on-stage depictions of virtual worlds, for example in The Nether, director Rachel O’Riordan has opted for a stark and simplified staging. Instead of flashy pixels, set designer Gary McCann has created an oppressive domain of twisted wiring and busted circuit boards. It recalls some kind of vast, broken down and busted up machine, but one that is strangely organic in its form, with dripping water and mounds of cabling that resemble slumbering animals. Meanwhile, Simon Slater’s haunting score ghosts in and out of the narrative, creating an imminent sense of dread.

Despite not a single punch being thrown or a drop of stage-blood spilled, Killology remains an incredibly violent experience. It is also a profoundly compassionate one. It is the marked absence of any physical displays of on-stage brutality that emphasize the heart wrenching ferocity of Owen’s writing. Unlike the video game from which the play takes its title, Owen’s interest resides not in the mechanics of violent events, but in the myriad ways that these obscene acts of cruelty perpetuate themselves through the lives they collide with. It’s the deeply felt psychological wounds caused by these cycles of neglect that fascinates Owen, with the facile nastiness of Paul’s computer-generated creation serving as the symptom of a greater malaise. This is most apparent in the character of Davey (an utterly superb Sion Daniel Young) whose descent into moodswings, self-destruction and petty crime follows the brutal treatment of his pet dog, Maisie – his last remaining connection to his absent father, Alan. Young’s performance cuts to the core of Davey’s twitchy and childlike vulnerability and amounts to one of the most intensely moving portrayals of childhood trauma I’ve yet come across on-stage. It’s a truly bruising and gutting performance.

Killology is on at the Royal Court until 24th June 2017. Click here for more details.

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Lee Anderson

Lee is a writer and critic living in London. Despite subsisting solely on a diet of Marmite sandwhiches, black coffee and Marlboro Light, Lee survived the crush of academia and graduated with a first-class degree in English & Film and Theatre from the University of Reading in 2011 (a decision he has struggled to explain to his parents ever since). As well as slating work as a critic, Lee is also making work as a playwright, thus both having his cake and eating it too. He is also an Associate Artist of SQUINT theatre company.

Review: Killology at the Royal Court Show Info


Directed by Rachel O'Riordan

Written by Gary Owen

Cast includes Sean Gleeson, Richard Mylan, Sion Daniel Young

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