Benedict XVI once noted that in the early Church, converts were asked to renounce not just the Devil’s sins but also his pomp. Pomp partly referred to the ancient theatre where it was considered entertainment to watch men torn apart by animals. Centuries of horror in art implies that man has a cathartic need to witness other men suffering – and some of the ancient playwrights did at least try to squeeze a moral lesson out of it. Today, few bother. What is the lesson of Born to Kill (Thursdays, 9pm), Channel 4’s nasty drama about a teenage psychopath? Jack Rowan is very impressive as Sam, a 16-year-old model student who kills pensioners for kicks. I suppose the drama is exploring the old question of what makes a murder: nature or nurture?
Sam’s father is in prison for something terrible he did when Sam was a boy, and we’re invited to speculate if Sam’s disorder is biologically inherited or a reaction to trauma. For Christians, it’s a complex matter. God cannot create evil and original sin is not an excuse for sinning. But there are observable patterns of human behaviour that suggest a person like Jack Rowan is incapable of empathy rather than being self-consciously immoral. Amoral, in other words.
So this isn’t a whodunit but a whydunit – but unless the show ends with a reflection on what could have been done to prevent it, I’m not sure it was worth the money to make it. There are bad people in the world – we get it. They do bad things – do we need to see it?
Sam’s murders are highly disturbing. There’s no suspense: you can see what’s coming and you want to look away. One is left not with a sense of shock but distaste. I felt – honestly – as if my soul had been soiled. In writing that, I risk sounding hysterical, prudish and being dismissed as a Mary Whitehouse. But theatre is powerful. It has an effect. Born to Kill’s sleek production and fine acting cannot hide its cliché and emptiness. It’s not telling us anything we don’t already know. More instructive stories about real-life crime can be read in the morning newspaper. This is not cathartic theatre – it is devilish pomp.
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