09/05/2012

Up-words - Unquiet Slumbers

Up -words features the best of the articles from This way up when it was published as a print fanzine from 2002- 2010.

Unquiet Slumbers / John Connors / June 2005

Martin McDonagh is notorious in literary circles for once telling Sean Connery to “Shut up, you’ve only made three good films” when the original Jamesh Bond berated him for being drunk at an awards ceremony. The son of an Irish construction worker and a cleaning lady, McDonagh left school at 16, spent ten years on the dole watching his brother attempt to become a writer before having a go himself. Eventually, the Druid Theatre Company picked up his work and he found himself acclaimed as `the most promising playwright to emerge in Britain in the last ten years`.  Plays like Beauty Queen which featured an old woman doused in chip fat, The Lonesome West where a priest put his hands into molten plastic and The Lieutenant of Inishmore in which bodies were seen being hacked up on stage have earned him a reputation as theatre lands’ Tarantino but all his work has a strong moral point to make and doesn’t mind making the audience feel uncomfortable in the process.

The Pillowman asks us to think about responsibility; is a crime justified in extreme circumstances? Is a writer morally responsible for what happens as a result of his words? At a time when theatres have twice recently been threatened with violence for staging `provocative` work, it’s certainly a timely reminder that once a drama is unleashed it is very difficult for its writer to control the results. Premiered at the National Theatre in November 2003, with a cast that included Jim Broadbent, this three month provincial tour saw The Pillowman playing to packed, enthusiastic houses even if the venues were sometimes off the beaten track. For example, sitting in the bar of the slightly surreal, ultra modern Salford Quays theatre, a few miles from the centre of Manchester, I was surprised to see a fully working barge pumping past but that was not to be my only unusual sight of the evening.

In an unnamed autocratic dictatorship, a young writer called Katurian finds himself in police custody but has no idea why. Is it perhaps because of his macabre short stories in which children meet grisly fates yet always at the behest of a moral? The Pillowman asks us to think about responsibility; is a crime justified in extreme circumstances? Is a writer morally responsible for what happens as a result of his words? At a time when theatres have twice recently been threatened with violence for staging `provocative` work, it’s certainly a timely reminder that once a drama is unleashed it is very difficult for its writer to control the results. Premiered at the National Theatre in November 2003, with a cast that included Jim Broadbent, this three month provincial tour saw The Pillowman playing to packed, enthusiastic houses even if the venues were sometimes off the beaten track. For example, sitting in the bar of the slightly surreal, ultra modern Salford Quays theatre, a few miles from the centre of Manchester, I was surprised to see a fully working barge pumping past but that was not to be my only unusual sight of the evening.

Not for the faint hearted but no bloodbath either, The Pillowman is a dextrous work that manages to amuse as much as it does to shock yet there is a bitter undertow that might make you wonder what sort of nightmares McDonagh himself endures. Grimmer than the grimmest Grimm fairytale Katurian’s stories are the amazing backbone of the play (see boxout) and it is the reading of them that does the spade work in getting to grips with Katurian himself. Through a story called `The Writer and the Writer’s Brother` we learn that the Katurian brothers endured a bizarre childhood. While Katurian was given everything and treated with love and care, Michal was locked in his room and tortured nightly with electrodes. His screams and the sounds of the torture turned his younger brother’s prose and themes darker by the day. After seven years of this he investigated, discovered the truth and promptly killed his parents, smothering them with a pillow. Thus the motif of pillows is established and it is this very same fate that awaits Michal later albeit in different circumstances.

Then there is `The Pillowman` story itself; in this tale, a man made entirely of pillows visits adults about to commit suicide, slows time and re-visits them in their childhood, telling them what will become of them and offering to kill them off now.

Its difficult to see if there is a lot of logic in the circuitous turn of events that the play depicts – on the one hand can any writer really be held responsible for the effects their words have on unstable individuals? Can Katurian’s murder of his parents ever really be justified whatever the circumstances? McDonagh doesn’t make it easy because he challenges the arguments from both sides. He dares us, on the one hand, to feel empathy with the brothers who are surely victims themselves. Yet on the other hand, his settings are so theatrically gothic and in some ways so absurd that it’s hard not to search for a deeper allegory at work.

The way he wrong foots our expectations makes for a rollercoaster evening though. At first it seems as if he is showing a typical old style Iron Curtain state at work; the shifty glances between the policemen, the air of mystery and subterfuge, the ambiguous questions that confuse rather than clarify - it all brings to mind the former USSR. Once the true nature of the investigation is established, the emphasis shifts to a debate about the influence of Katurian’s stories. Once Michal is added to the mix, we are duped into believing he couldn’t possibly do it; at one point Katurian even suggests there may not have been any murdered children at all and it’s all a stitch up. Then when Michal casually admits he did commit the murders, the play turns into a brotherly two hander for half an hour, full of poignant moments and real anger. You kind of know what’s coming when Katurian lulls Michal to sleep with his favourite story but it doesn’t make it any less shocking. That leaves the last part as a cat and mouse game between both detectives and Katurian.

Another powerful force at work is McDonagh’s feisty dialogue, twisting and turning from brutal threats to casual sarcasm at the drop of a hat. Right from the start this is evident when Katurian tries to show how much he respects the police and that his work has no political agenda that he thinks they think it might have (the play is full of delightfully threaded sentences like that!). He can’t believe he’s actually in trouble, “I’m helping you with your enquiries, I thought” he offers, suggesting they are not friends but neither are they enemies. Ariel, the more aggressive detective counters; “You’ve had your rights read. You’ve been took out of your home, You’ve had a fucking blindfold on. Do you think we do this to our good fucking friends?” Throughout the interrogation Ariel and his subordinate Tupolski exchange some frustration with each other, which adds another humorous undercurrent; early on Tuploski sardonically points out they are bad and good cop. The policemen start to identify the theme of murdered children in Katurian’s work.

Once his brother Michal is mentioned, casually, as being held in the next room, Katurian becomes more agitated especially as Tupolski starts to question the minutiae of his stories trying to identify motivations and themes. It’s as if the policeman is enjoying the intellectual exercise and the writer is defending it on a purely literary level. Of one Katurian declares, “It’s a puzzle without a solution” to which Tupolski says, “I think there’s a solution. But then, I’m really clever.” The dialogue is interrupted when simultaneously the sound of Michal screaming drifts into the room and Tuploski demands Katurian looks inside a metal box he produces. Katurian is bewildered that his brother is being hurt, “You said you wouldn’t touch him” he pleads prompting Tupolski’s smart reply; “I haven’t touched him”. Katurian: “But you said he would be fine. You gave me your word.” Tupolski: “I am a high ranking police officer in a totalitarian fucking dictatorship. What are you doing taking my word about anything?”

The dramatic tension is upped by now; the box seems to contain five toes, allegedly pertaining to a story of Katurian’s and it is revealed that Michal has confessed to three child murders. After a flashback depiction of Katurian’s background as described above, Act two sees Katurian, after being beaten up, thrown into the same cell as Michal who has actually not been beaten up. This is a brilliantly composed and lengthy scene during which we find out that Michal has committed the murders, which shatters and horrifies Katurian especially when Michal intimates that the missing third child has been despatched in the fashion of `The Little Jesus`.

Initially we are led to believe that Michal really is incapable of anything bad; he simple mindedly tells Katurian he’s bored and he also swears that he didn’t kill the kids. Katurian starts to doubt whether any crimes have really taken place; “We don’t even know that there were any children killed at all” he tells Michal, just because they’ve been told about it doesn’t necessarily make it true. This is when Michal gets Katurian to relate `The Pillowman` story to him, at the end of which Michal says; “but I still can’t figure it out”; Katurian thinks he’s talking about the story but then – and this is the moment the play really starts to get dark – Michal says; “The box with the little boy’s toes in it.”



Through his numb shock Katurian tries to find out exactly what heinous things his brother has done but the latter’s excuse seems to be “Because you told me…every story you tell me something horrible happens to somebody. I was just testing out how far fetched they were.” The brothers argue and here you get a sense of the dubious morality of Katurian. While stunned that his brother could do such things, he still vigorously defends `The Pillowman` and other stories and at one point suggests that he would die himself if his stories could be saved. He puts such great store in them; it appears they are his way of dealing with his own past and, perhaps, a way he feels he can communicate to others. The stories are pivotal to everyone’s reactions; both detectives are affected by their content not just because of the horror aspect, but also because of incidents from their own pasts.

Michal really trusts only Katurian and has absorbed the stories but his logic is affected by his seven years of torture so he can’t see the points Katurian is making; he takes the stories literally because he can actually conceive such horrors happening after his own experiences. Katurian eventually decides on drastic action; he sends Michel to sleep with what seems to be his only relatively normal story and then smothers him with a pillow.

After the interval we start with `The Little Jesus`; a delightfully dark story about a girl whose obsession with being Jesus annoyed her parents so much they end up reproducing the crucifixion in their living room then burying her in the forest. Back in the interrogation room, Katurian is writing out his confession, including the murder of his parents, which the detectives had hitherto been unaware of. The one proviso he insists on is that his stories remain safe. During this sequence the two detectives’ motives are revealed which adds tension and also changes the dynamic. Tuploski has started to realise that Katurian may be lying; he asks detailed questions that only the murderer could answer and finds gaps; here he tells a story of his own the point of which is that Katurian’s confessions about the murdered children are made up. Furthermore, in a moment that adds a dash of pure comedy, a girl covered in green paint is led in; turns out that Michal had enacted the innocent story of `The Little Green Pig` and not `The Little Jesus` after all! Katurian of course is still going to be executed. He is shot at `four` in a countdown to zero. Ariel: “You said you’d give him ten. That wasn’t very nice.” Tupolski: “Ariel, what exactly is nice about shooting a man on his knees with a bag on his head?” We get to see what Katurian was thinking in his last few seconds before we see Ariel not burn the stories after all.

The Pillowman is a gripping, caustic and funny play with the capacity to unsettle and amuse from one moment to the next. Visually, the stark set offers a fairly neutral canvas but there are some superbly staged tableaux that cause the audience to gasp. These occur during sequences depicting either flashbacks or Katurian’s stories and are presented in a raised second level `square` above the main set and, in contrast to the plain walls of the cells, are vividly coloured, almost as if a child had drawn the background. The torture of Michal is only shown for a couple of seconds, while the Jesus Girl sequence is horrific and funny all at the same time. There’s also one genuine shock that sent the audience into jitters. Moody incidental music helps set the scene as well. 

One very noticeable thing is that the dialogue runs delightful circles around the participants with sarcasm and wry observation never far from the surface. In that sense, the ghost of Quentin Tarantino hovers but instead of talking about pop culture, our characters here are discussing life and death.Katurian is a difficult character to read, in that he goes from trembling fear to defiant sarcasm in a moment and it’s a challenge that Lee Ingelby proves the equal of. He brings out Katurian’s vulnerability even when he’s standing up to the detectives while his brotherly affection with Michal is also very well played yet you also see the selfishness that McDonagh has built into the character. Ingleby sparks in the scenes with Tupolski and Ariel and whenever Katurian is reading his own stories you can see the storyteller’s zeal in the actor’s face. As always is the case with Lee Ingelby, you develop a rapport with the character whatever his moral faults; this is a confident performance boosted further by his obvious rapport with Edward Hogg, who plays Michal. They play fraternal familiarity easily and Hogg is careful not to overplay the disability card. Their scenes together are full of the love and hate that brothers always have and when Katurian prepares to smother Michal and says “Sweet dreams, little baby” it’s heartbreaking.

Jim Norton is fantastically dry as Tuploski yet every so often lets the character’s nasty interior surface; in many ways he is far more dangerous than the brutal Ariel. Watching Norton and Ingleby dance the lines around each other is perfect theatre and makes you wonder why stuff like this doesn’t appear more on TV these days. Yes, there is plenty of what sombre continuity announcers like to call “strong language” but there is also “rich, wild language”. Perhaps they feel that is a step too far for tv?. The two detectives spar brilliantly too; a rivalry is established from the start and Ewan Stewart’s burly Ariel surprisingly providing some of the biggest laughs, especially when the play pokes fun at police work and interrogation; in one scene Tuploski is even correcting grammar!

This production of The Pillowman is one of the best things I’ve ever been to the theatre to see; it provokes, amuses and shocks, has a brilliant cast and is staged to stunning effect. And when I’m next writing a story, I’ll be a little more careful….

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