Violence begets violence in Gary Owen’s “Killology” — whether it’s real or represented. Entering the debate about the effects of explicit computer games, Owen’s dark three-actor play complicates the issue by contextualizing it. He argues that games like the fictional “Killology,” essentially a torture simulator, are themselves products of a society built on violence and they exacerbate and amplify that quality in their turn. A slippery drama with a strong moral core, it pits long-term care against short-term capitalism and, ultimately, ends up stating the obvious.
As in his searing anti-austerity monologue “Iphigenia in Splott,” recently part of the Brits Off Broadway line-up in New York, Owen works through character. “Killology” puts three men onstage, each addressing the audience alone. Gradually, their stories cohere — but they also contradict each other.
Paul (Richard Mylan) is a slick, successful games developer, his skin almost as shiny as his petrol blue suit, his stubble so even it might have been spray-painted on. At 23, much to his wealthy father’s disappointment, he came up with a concept for a game that lets players cut straight to the kill — where dispatching enemies isn’t a means to an end, but an end in itself. Players score points for the style and savagery of their sadism. It’s moral, he insists. You lose if you look away from the suffering you inflict.
In Alan (Seán Gleeson), he comes face to face with his own consequences. After his son survived a brutal copycat attack, straight out of level nine, Alan’s intent on inflicting the self-same pain on Paul — a perfect cycle of violence. But isn’t that a little simple in its cause-and-effect? After all, he walked out on Davey (Sion Daniel Young) as a kid, leaving his son teetering off the rails into troublesome spots. The boy was trolling his attackers before their umbrage escalated into action.
Owen’s writing is full of such loop-the-loops: violence built on violence, virtual to real and back again. But it’s also an examination of fatherhood. In part, “Killology” wonders whether young men turn to violent games for want of proper parenting, but it also argues that they’re a symptom of an exploitative economy, not simply a cause of its problems.
Owen’s target, or one of them, is the quick fix. The gratification of a quick in-game kill sits next to the lazy profiteering of a crowd-pleaser. Extreme content, says Paul, is easier than quality. That bleeds through the play: Alan’s revenge won’t sort his son out; Paul’s cash can’t buy his dying father’s love. Davey’s recovery takes time – physical therapy session after painful physical therapy session. So does his career in hospital care: a porter pushing people around, promoted to a healthcare assistant willingly wiping bums. Zoom out and it applies to society: untangling a society so built on violence will itself take time.
“Killology” functions through its form. Not only do its monologues suggest individualism and atomization, the writing forces us to assess what we’re watching — particularly, the violence therein. There’s an added irony with its sitting in the Royal Court Upstairs — the birthplace of in-yer-face theater — but Owen’s careful not to represent violence, only to describe it. Since it all exists in language — broken bones and burnt skin — there’s no distinction between real acts and represented ones.
That extends to the whole. The three accounts don’t add up. They overlap, but they’re incompatible. Davey’s dad can’t be in a secure unit and under his son’s care, for instance. Owen has, essentially, written a Penrose triangle, an impossible reality, and while we know that some elements are unreal, we can’t know what. As with violence, the virtual and the actual become confused.
Rachel O’Riordan’s production sits in the gloom of Gary McCann’s shadowy set. A thicket of chunky black electric cables has entangled a pink bike like a butterfly in a spider’s web. Wires hang down like jungle vines, dangling dangerously over the water pooled underfoot. Others clump together like coal piles or slag heaps — no less industrial, no less violent.
The dark almost swallows the actors. Mylan lends Paul the callous, camp villainy we’ve come to associate with the alt-right, judging a character who needs playing sympathetically. Rather than showing a self-deluding saint, he stresses the selfishness beneath Paul’s caring for his sick father. Owen’s careful to construct complex moral dilemmas — the super-rich son splashing out to save his father’s life, for instance, or the teenage tearaway lashing out on account of abandonment — but, overall, he stacks the dice against the super-rich, towards the humble poor.