Playing the ghoul

Now, I’m not the type to get het up about the latest ‘thing-an-Edinburgh-Fringe-play-has-done-to-get-publicity’, but I read this today and it made me do a sadface:


Killers basically involves Peter Sutcliffe, Dennis Nilsen and Ian Brady* writing letters back to (for want of a better word) ‘fans’, respectively a lonely suitor, a supermarket worker and a schoolboy.


I myself was, for some time, the kind of lonely boy (yes, it’s ALWAYS boys) who would while away considerable hours reading about the violent and harrowing things that humans sometimes do to each other. Perhaps I thought it would give me an insight into human behaviour and thereby make me more interesting, or perhaps I was just a bit misanthropic because of how often I thought life had shat on me and wallowing in ‘the dark side’ somehow satisfied that part of my nature.


This all started to die off when I played a ‘guess-the-famous-person-on-the-post-it-stuck-to-your-head’ game at youth theatre and realised nobody else knew who the serial killer was that I’d written down for someone else. Later, when actually living with a woman, I became aware of how my keeping sensational documentation of, quite often, sexualised violence around the house was both unsettling and unbecoming. I don’t own books about murders any more. I like to think I’m now a bit closer to the kind of genuinely sensitive guy I never thought I could be, who picks up on crappy gender writing issues like manic pixies, sexy lamps ( and many other ways that a lot of mainstream film, TV and, I’m sad to say, theatre is currently written. It’s an ongoing process – if some day I should hit the big time, think I’ve got this whole issue nailed and start defending gleefully graphic and generally gender-angled violence on Luther or something, then you all have a free hand to nipple-gripple me in public until I learn some humility.



If I’ve learnt one important thing from this phase in my life it’s that, actually, ‘ghoul-ing up’ on serial killers doesn’t tell you piss-all about general human behaviour, any more than cordyceps (that fungus that takes over the brains of invertebrates, makes them climb up trees and then bursts through their bodies to spore – tells you about general fungi. They basically have the same lives as we do, but, because of some quirk of nature, they happen to live aspects of their life them in a relatively unusual and extremely anti-social way.


Obviously Killers writer Glenn Chandler can write whatever play he wants – first rule of commenting on the purpose of someone else’s art is that you can basically fuck off forever (especially if they’re better-known than you) and I’m fine with that – but he probably says the Second Most Disingenuous Thing I’ve Heard Regarding Theatre in 2013™, when he maintains:


‘…for me, the most interesting aspect of the psychology is the people who are writing to the serial killers.’


…which is obviously why the only characters featured in the play are the killers themselves, why the script entirely consists of the words the killers have written and why, I presume, the play is called Killers. Obviously the point is the people writing to the killers. Even a child can tell you that. It’s barely about Sutcliffe, Brady and Nilsen at all. Chandler hardly even mentions in the BBC News article about his play Killers that one of them has been in contact about it.


The very suggestion that this story would even be newsworthy and provide valuable publicity in the first place if the play just involved some everyday lonely people, rather than the ‘UK’s Vilest Murderers’ version of the Sugababes (original line-up), is patently nonsense. It’s not like it could have been dramatized in a totally different and unorthodox way, like maybe having the recipients of the letters reading them, emphasising the poignancy and loneliness of everyday experience in a way that an audience can properly engage with. It’s quite clear that the only way to enact this properly is to basically wank off over the smokin’ hot irony of Dennis Nilsen giving someone advice on same-sex relationships and the fact that Ian Brady thinks he’s a *tiny* bit smarter than everyone who has ever lived, despite currently being in prison for crimes he’s committed.


[speaking of smokin’ hot irony, I’m going to stop that now. When it comes to sarcasm I’m more an opportunistic sprinter than a majestic long-distance Stewart Lee and I find I lose my thread after a while]


So yeah, if that sounds like fun, go and see ‘Killers’ if you’ve really got to; if you feel theatre is really missing a ‘Channel 5 real-life crime’ genre; if you think it’ll be anything more than just some people talking, who have public profile because they killed other people; if that’s what you feel you need in your life.


There’s a target market for this kind of thing, as Chandler and his producers know perfectly well. I know too, because I used to be part of it. This would be cynically spun at me like it’s psychologically insightful, but it isn’t. It’s a return on an investment, an exhibition of curios that depend on the capacity for human vileness in order to have meaning. I’d be essentially paying money to the egos of mentally-ill criminals. I didn’t think so at the time, but I deserved better than that – and so do you.



* = as it happens, the show deals with a killer of women, and killer of men and a killer of children of both genders, so bizarrely it’s quite egalitarian for what it is…

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