Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Review: Death by pillows

As Martin McDonagh has a new play up in New York, A Behanding in Spokane, I decided to take a look at an earlier work that he had written. The Pillowman is probably McDonagh's most famous play, and for good reason: it has some great anecdotes within, proving the worth (and power) of storytelling; and it is literary, as it affirms the importance of the written word on society and on the individual. Except in this case, the outcome isn't so pleasant.

The Pillowman is a play that takes place in some anonymous totalitarian state; it's about a writer of stories, which actually read more like faerytales. The writer's name is Katurian Katurian Katurian. (He had funny parents, in his own words.) The absurdity of such a name is a strong echo to Kafka's protagonists and even the concept of the anonymous - as with having so many of the same names, it's hard to think that Katurian can be pinned down, that Katurian himself must be elusive. Our protagonist though has fallen into the hands of two detectives, a good cop/bad cop situation, in their own words. Tupolski and Ariel are questioning Katurian about his stories, why they focus on child abuse and dismemberment, what these stories could mean in the grander scheme of things. The name Tupolski makes us want to think that this anonymous totalitarian state is to echo that of the Soviet Republic. The name Ariel makes us want to think that this character is a more vengeful version of Shakespeare's in The Tempest.

As they interrogate him, Katurian hears the screaming of his brother Michal, a mentally handicapped man whom Katurian cares for. We soon find out, after Katurian is brutalised by the police, that Michal was ok, that he was told to scream...and that he's hiding some dark secrets that Katurian didn't know about. And perhaps doesn't want to know about. It makes us question the logic of storytelling, its effects on the reader (or in this case, the listener), and why storytelling for certain writers is more necessary than life itself.

In many ways, The Pillowman feels like a story we've seen before. It has hints of 'The Gospel According to Mark' by Jorge Luis Borges in certain aspects of its torture. It has the flavour of many of Kafka's shorts, the pains of the characters' plights. And it does tie together its multiple narratives and voices like a good Tom Stoppard play. But like the comedy and tragedy of his Martin McDonagh's first feature film, In Bruges, the drama unfolds unrelentlessly, painfully - even through the laughs.


Kari said...

Huh..I didn't know that he wrote In Bruges, which was kinda entertaining but ended up being too much of a downer for my taste [Colin, begin your insults of my tastes HERE]. I'm always intrigued by stories within stories, though. I think it takes something special for the author to pull it off.

And hey, you introduced a whole new category: drama!!

Salvatore said...

I have to say that it was worth it. I had to read it because David Tennant was in the original production. That just says enough.

Huzzah for drama. At the moment I fear that it's all I have time to read in spare moments.