Thursday, 1 June 2017

Theatre review: Killology

Playwright Gary Owen is making a niche for himself as the very disturbing voice of a dispossessed underclass, as well as being, presumably, the Welsh tourist board's worst nightmare, giving us as he does a Wales that's an almost apocalyptic wasteland stalked by feral gangs. These gangs are the bane of Davey's (Sion Daniel Young) life growing up, and occasional incidents of horrific violence shape who he becomes as a teenager - fighting back against the bullies doesn't work so he learns to pick on those weaker than him himself. But there's even worse violence waiting for him, and this time he's unlikely to survive to continue the cycle. On the opposite end of the social scale, entirely fictional violence has shaped the life of Paul (Richard Mylan,) the designer behind a hugely successful computer game, Killology, which skips the fights of traditional beat-em-ups and goes straight for the kill, with the most creative and sadistic ways of killing opponents gaining the most points.

Paul's argument is that his game is actually more moral because it forces the player to watch the consequences of their actions, rather than just see off countless nameless henchmen. It's not an argument anyone's too convinced by, least of all Davey's absent father Alan (Seán Gleeson,) who came back into his son's life way too late and blames the game, and its creator, for everything that happened to him.

Owen's Killology mostly consists of interlinked monologues from the three men, although there are occasional particularly dramatic moments when two of them will meet. But for the most part it relies on the power of words alone, and Rachel O'Riordan's production makes sure they hit home, making for an incredibly uncomfortable watch - tonight it was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a scene describing animal cruelty that was too much for a few audience members who made an early escape, although most of the cruelty is perpetrated by humans on each other. Gary McCann's set is a murky coil of ropes and puddles on the floor, with a network of cables hanging from the ceiling in which objects whose significance will become apparent later are caught up. But the most significant contribution to the sinister tone comes from Sam Jones and Simon Slater's eerie, discordant sound design.

Telling the story out of sequence - and with what turn out to be a couple of alternate versions of the truth thrown in - the play opens with Alan breaking into Paul's flat to take revenge for what happened to his son, but of course the way things turn out are less simple than that: In some ways Killology is about the much-discussed subject of whether violence in media translates into violence in real life, largely coming out in disagreement with it, as Davey's life is quite horrific enough before anyone takes inspiration from the video game - and just as well, as despite not actually showing much violence, it's described in such detail that if there were correlation we'd be seeing dogfights in Chelsea after people watched the show.

But it's much more about fathers and sons: Alan has never been part of Davey's life and once everything goes wrong it's harder to admit that might be a factor, than it is to look for an easy target. And Paul is also a product of a twisted relationship, his self-made-man father belittling his achievements at every step*. Despite Paul's father never appearing on stage this is a complex relationship that sees the son, even in adulthood, acting up for his father's attention, and an approval he'll never get. It leads to further dark questions over the way he cares for his father in old age - is he just trying to keep him alive to extend his suffering, having had the final slap in the face from him? Owen's writing has a tendency to ramble, or at least to appear to until things come together at the end in a pretty satisfying way.

It's a powerful piece well-acted, particularly by Young who has to balance his character's tragedy with his own chilling side, but it's without doubt a tough one to watch※.

Killology by Gary Owen is booking until the 24th of June at the Royal Court's Jerwood Theatre Upstairs.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Mark Douet.

*I don't know why his dad's disappointed - he's got an ology!

※In the interval a woman behind me said "it's like torture for the audience!" which just proves she hasn't seen Salomé.

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