Nonsensical and sometimes not-so-nonsensical rants about what may or may not be going through my head. Try to liberalize your canvas of interpretation when reading these posts - you will go far...

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Pillowman - Review

‘When art inspires violence, what responsibility does the artist bear for the fruits of his work?’ This provocative question is raised in Martin McDonagh's "The Pillowman".  At one point in the play, the protagonist tells his interrogators ''A great man once said, 'The only duty of a storyteller is to tell a story,’ and I believe in that wholeheartedly.” He might as well be speaking for the playwright - Mr. McDonagh's view of theater is all about the medium, not the message. Therefore, it is no surprise that The Pillowman is about storytelling — both on the page and in “real life” — and the ways we interpret the stories of others. In one sense, it's about a writer's nightmare that people might assume his or her most grotesque ideas and stories represent, say, wish fulfillment or, even worse, a diaristic account of crimes committed. On another level, the play is a ripping black comedy, full of terrific allusions (My personal favorite being ‘The Pied Piper of Hamlin’) and playful stereotypes: the hard-boiled detectives who toy with their suspect and each other; the writer who MUST suffer to write well.

While the audience takes its seats, a man sits blindfolded in a dark, bare room. He turns out to be Katurian K. Katurian (played by Rouvan Mahmud), a writer of short stories who is brought into the interrogation room because children are being murdered in the same fashion as the children in his bizarre fairy tale/fables - forced to eat razor blade embedded dolls carved from apples (from the story "The Little Apple Men"), toes cut off (from the story "The Tale of the Town on the River") and perhaps even beaten, crucified and buried (from the story "The Little Jesus"). Since all of Katurian’s stories run in this vein, it is easy to assume that he must be the murderer. He is, therefore, being interrogated for two murders and under suspicion of a third. But very little is as it appears in a McDonagh play; and, as we learn slowly, the truth is stranger than the fiction.

Though almost all the stories Katurian has written contain sadistic violence against children, he insists that they are only stories, without political or moral significance. However, as the story unfolds, Michal, Katurian's brain-damaged, spastic brother, confesses to having murdered three children in grotesque rituals inspired by Katurian's lurid tales.

You could make an argument that McDonagh sees writing as an act of displacement, a liberation from the endless cycle of trauma, in which a child victim of abuse becomes the adult perpetrator. After all, Michal and Katurian have had a most unfortunate childhood. On discovering that young Katurian had a yen for writing, his parents performed an experiment designed to develop his precocious talent. They showered him with love and attention, while chaining his brother to a bed in an adjoining room and subjecting him to nightly torture with drills, sharpening Katurian's gift by exposing him to a nightly chorus of human suffering. Whatever the case, the parental experiment works, and their son becomes a twisted - but, of course, brilliant - writer. When, after seven years of listening to the torture of his brother, Katurian breaks down the door and discovers what has been happening (perhaps he too is somewhat simple-minded), he is horrified. He smothers his parents with a pillow, and rescues his now brain-damaged brother from his life of torment.

They then live happily while Katurian finds a job at Express Tribune and Michal attends school near the Parsi Colony. And in his spare time, Katurian does what he knows best – he writes short stories. One of his best stories is about the Pillowman, a creature made of fluffy pink pillows who visits children ‘who lead horrific lives’ and offers them the choice of killing themselves at that point, and avoiding pain and ‘horrific lives’ of the future.

In his depiction of a man whose terror-haunted childhood turned him into a prolific fantasist with a need to transmute his pain into fiction, Mr. McDonagh seems to be exploring the connection between suffering and creativity. Examining the power of our stories and their affects on our own self perception as well as the real world consequences of telling stories, McDonagh takes us down a dark rabbit hole and places stories within stories and, the best thing about them is that these are stories that amaze and repulse, confuse and reveal.

“The Pillowman” is an uncomfortable story, to put it mildly. Not for the squeamish, torture and gore is depicted on stage and stories of child murder and molestation are often described in gruesome detail. It’s not an easy show to enjoy by any means, but McDonagh takes care to slip in some small humorous moments into “Pillowman.” He laughs at the ridiculousness of the characters’ circumstances, the absurdity of the blood spilled or described on stage. The mood switches between laughter and darkness in sometimes millisecond intervals, the audience unsure when to laugh and when to watch in nervous silence. It’s a difficult combination to manage and the tone often feels uneven.

There is a reason why violence is so prevalent. Much of the show is set up to debate what responsibility the supposedly brilliant writer, Katurian, has over the actions his stories may or may not cause. It’s a good argument. “The Pillowman” embraces moral ambiguity bravely and bloodily but, while McDonagh manages to push the audience out of themselves and consider real life consequences of fiction, not every viewer will be able to stomach the stark world offered to them.

The responsibilities of the writer to society and himself, the dangerous power of literature, and the idea that writers are damaged - all are casually tossed into the cauldron until, two hours later, McDonagh smugly informs us that fiction and storytellers are very good things and worth getting your hands dirty for. It is as helpful as being offered a rosy apple with a razor blade secreted inside.

A fairly decent cast endows each character with ambiguity. Rouvan Mahmud's Katurian is a hapless writer and beloved brother — or is he a lethal psychopath? Rafeh Mahmud's Michal is a sweet and harmless man-child — or is he, as Katurian, in an angry moment, calls him, "a sadistic, retarded little pervert"? Momin Zafar and Imam Syed as the detectives were convincing, though at times mumbling. Syed played the bad cop a bit too stereotypically to make us believe him when he departed from that stereotype; Zafar as Gibrael was often funny as the better, if not quite good, cop of the duo.

The scenes of Katurian interacting with his brother were beautifully performed. Rafeh Mahmud captured the innocence of a tortured soul who did not understand the reality of what he was doing.  Rouvan succeeded in portraying the anguished conflict between his love for his brother and his horror of what transpired, all the while questioning his own culpability in the horrific events.

The Pillowman is possibly the vainest piece of self-propaganda that I have seen penned by a writer. Its complex plot and "dark" themes serve to disguise a determined superficiality, and it presents a justification of literature that's breathtakingly callous and self-serving. McDonagh’s story is too outlandish and synthetic to carry the weight of any larger meanings, and so the play has a hollow, inhuman quality. His nihilistic vision seems as if it has been put on to spook us, like the cheap thrill a plastic Halloween mask may give.

*The Pillowman will be playing at MAD school on Halloween (i.e. 31st October). 

Excerpts on the storyline taken from various articles online. Can't be bothered to search for them and insert them as bibliography. 

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