Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Pillowman (Lyric Theatre, 24 March-19 April): "We like executing writers ... it sends out a signal"

Martin McDonagh is a master story-teller and his play The Pillowman is not only based around a powerful story arc, but contains a series of grisly fairy tales in the form of short stories that are read out during the performance.
I’ve never done any anti-police thing, any anti-state thing …

Katurian (played by Peter Campion) has been blindfolded and taken to a concrete curved-walled interrogation room. The door is heavy and riveted; the only window is grilled and three metres or more above the tiled floor.

The writer of hundreds of infrequently published short stories is initially not sure why he has been brought in to help the two policemen who question him.

Ariel (Gary Lydon) wears braces and plays bad cop, with a reputation for using torture to extract confessions. The more experienced and more senior Tupolski (David McSavage) is the better mannered good cop – or perhaps less-bad-but-still-sinister cop – dressed in his sharp grey suit. But can either be trusted? And what baggage to they bring to the investigation?
I’m a high ranking police officer in a totalitarian regime …

McDonagh’s trademark rapid-fire repetition of dialogue and ping pong between characters along with a magnificent use of pauses create confusion, tension and give the performance injections of pace despite its limited cast and restricted set. Yet the menace is laced with humour and comedy genius.
We like executing writers … it sends out a signal.

Katurian (and McDonagh by extension) is a modern day Grimm, writing short stories that involve children or adults being mistreated, often violently. The police are concerned that his fiction now resembles a recent series of read-life child murders. At times you’ll wonder whether Katurian or the interrogators are the bigger storytellers!

They’ve searched his house, gathered up his stories, and brought his older brother Michal (Michael Ford-Fitzgerald) to the next door cell. Michal’s experience of childhood abuse and learning disabilities make him a vulnerable and sometimes hard-to-read figure in the play.

A couple of times between scenes, Owen MacCárthaigh’s magical set morphs to allow short stories narrated by Katurian and be illustrated by a subsidiary cast on an elevated platform behind him. These tales offer autobiographical insight into Katurian and Michal’s life and deeds.

The stories within the story are so well fashioned. Katurian/McDonagh’s story of The Little Green Pig that enjoys being “a little bit peculiar” would make a great children’s story book or even a radio Thought For The Day.
They’re not going to kill my stories, they’re all that I’ve got.

A suitably fairy tale ending befits the dark and macabre themes throughout the play.

The Pillowman is inappropriate in so many ways. If the actors on stage are racist and mock disability that reflects the nature of their characters. But a lot of the audience giggle along to the stories, maybe occasionally pausing to think through the wrongness of their response. In the theatre environment, the audience would be cold-hearted not to have empathy but they don’t express anger, speak up or storm out. We are carried along by the storytelling, and aren’t as far removed from the on-stage characters as we might hope.

The power of storytelling is somewhat lost in today’s world of sound bites.

Few broadcast news reports have the time to stick with a prolonged narrative and instead quickly cut away to a synopsis, analysis or an alternative opinion. Newspaper articles get ever shorter as interaction research shows that readers engage with the first few paragraphs and the final ones before skimming the rest of the text (if they even bother).

Yet children love the repetition of a well-crafted, oft-rehearsed story being repeatedly read to them at bedtime. And as I’ve discovered, as they grow older, they start to enjoy less well-crafted and made-up-on-the-hoof parody stories involving favourite characters that play with words and stretch their imaginations.

Some of the most effective sermons are those in which the preacher tells a Biblical story, amplifying it, asking what might have been going on in the heads of the characters, looking at the interactions, painting a rich three dimension picture of the plain words on the page and activating it in the minds of the congregation before making some points or challenges.

The Pillowman illustrates the power of storytelling, the challenges to the freedom or a writer, as well as the consequences if your motivation is misinterpreted or your words are taken as justification for awful action.

Is The Pillowman the product of a warped mind, or a prophet? Is there a responsibility attached to the creation and sharing of tales?

The Pillowman’s cast totally live up to the quality of the script. Peter Campion is never off the stage for the two and a half hour performance and is completely believable as an author, a brother, and a wide-eyed young man running out of time. The language is very strong throughout, and the themes are raw.

After ten years, 2015 is the first time that the play has been performed in Ireland. Having passed through Galway, Dublin and Cork, it’s worth catching The Pillowman at the Lyric Theatre until 16 April.

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