Review: The Pillowman ~ theatre notes

Friday, May 25, 2007

Review: The Pillowman

The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh, directed by Simon Phillips. Design by Gabrila Tylesova, lighting by Matt Scott, composer Ian McDonald, animator Dom Evans. With Richard Bligh, Joel Edgerton, Kim Gyngell, Rima Hadchiti, Natasha Herbert and Dan Wyllie. Melbourne Theatre Company @ the CUB Malthouse until June 22.

I think I dreamed about The Pillowman last night. Not because it is dark and nasty (I guess it is, although not because it touches the actual nerve of nightmare); not because it is disturbing (it is, but not in the ways the writer so clearly intends); not because it is obscene (which it is, but only in how basely it tickles its audience). No, let me fling off the faux objectivity of the crrrritic and speak frankly as the writer who woke early this morning with this smugly self-congratulatory play ringing in my ears like tinnitus.

The more I thought about this play, the more I hated it. But before I tell you why, let me be fair. This is a decent production that features an excellent cast, who make the most of McDonagh's undoubted talent for vaudevillean dialogue. There are at least a couple of outstanding performances which warrant the storm of applause at the end. I'm sure that The Pillowman will be greeted with as much enthusiasm here as it was in London and New York and, well, good luck to McDonagh. As Prospero says at the end of The Tempest, the project of the players is "to please", and it seems that McDonagh certainly knows how to do that.

For my part, I walked away feeling somehow soiled. Outside the oeuvre of Donald Trump, The Pillowman is possibly the vainest piece of self-propaganda that I have seen penned by a writer. It's archly deceptive, purporting to shock and confront its audience while in fact it deftly massages their expectations. Its complex plot and "dark" themes (spoilers below) serve to disguise a determined superficiality, and it presents a justification of literature that's breathtakingly callous and self-serving. That final point is, I think, what disturbed my sleep. I mean, writing is my trade, my obsession and one of my great loves: is this all there is to it?

The Pillowman opens with a classic interrogation scene. In an unnamed totalitarian dictatorship, two policemen, Tupolski (Kim Gyngell) and Ariel (Greg Stone) are cross-examining Katurian (Joel Edgerton). Katurian - whose full name is Katurian Katurian Katurian (KKK - geddit?) - is a writer of short stories, twisted fairy tales which almost always concern themselves with the torture, dismemberment and murder of children. He is bewildered but co-operative, ignorant of why he has been arrested, and disclaims any political or subversive intent in his stories.

No, says Katurian, running through the standard disclaimers: his first, and perhaps only, duty as a writer is to his story. What others make of what he writes is not his concern. He repeats Wilde's dictum that stories can only be judged on whether they are "well written or badly written" (itself echoed in Peter Handke's statement that a writer's morality is in his style). Given the overwriting of many scenes, this strikes me as an unwary move on McDonagh's part; but at the same time, it's hard not to feel some empathy with his plea for the right to exist outside some narrowly-defined ideology, to be judged on his work alone.

We forget pretty much straight away about the totalitarian state, which is the first of several red herrings that appear briefly and then vanish without trace. It becomes clear that Katurian's arrest is due to the recent murders of two children, who have been killed in gruesome ways that mimic the mutilations in his stories. A third child is missing, believed dead. And Katurian's brother Michal (Dan Wyllie), who has "learning difficulties", has also been arrested and may in fact be being tortured in an adjacent room by the psychotic Ariel, who has had a "difficult childhood" that manifests in a penchant for sadistic violence.

Meanwhile, back at the police station, we find out that Michal really did kill those children. A "twist", I suppose, which seems to be the major quality Katurian looks for in his fables, just as, judging by the several twists in The Pillowman, McDonagh does in his plays. Tormented by the thought that he is now, albeit unwittingly, in some way culpable for the murders, Katurian smothers his brother with a pillow, and decides to do a deal with the police. He will confess to everything, in return for the assurance that his masterpieces will be preserved for posterity in a police file, presumably to be discovered by an aghast and adoring public 50 years later when the files are declassified.

And so the plots thicken, assisted by the enactment of Katurian's stories with theatrically heightened vignettes performed by Natasha Herbert, Richard Bligh and Rima Hadchiti. And the themes multiply in tandem with the stories. At one point the central question is one of moral responsibility, not political intent, at another there seems to be a thesis that writers are psychologically damaged. McDonagh serially undermines each proposition, forestalling critical analysis by satirising its expectations. Well, I have some sympathy with such a project: but where does he end up?

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 peformed 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 dentist drills, sharpening Katurian's gift by exposing him to a nightly chorus of human suffering.

Actually, Saddam Hussein had a remarkably similar idea, only he wanted to create dictators, not writers. As children, his sons Uday and Qusay were often taken to Saddam's prison cells to witness the torture of prisoners, and we all know what great literature they produced. But this is a fable, not a news story: and it seems to me that McDonagh is splitting the writerly self, that perhaps the crippled brother represents the tormented, murderous child within the writer, whose unconsoled howls spark the anguish that rings the truth in his immortal works. Or something like that.

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 in a garrett, while Katurian finds a job at an abbatoir. And in his spare time, he writes 400 short stories. The most significant of these, besides his autobiography, is about the Pillowman, a creature made of pillows who visits suicides and takes them back to their last happy memory as children. Then he tells the children of their terrible lives to come, and offers them the choice of killing themselves at that point, and avoiding the certain pain of the future.

A colleague suggested at interval that he was on the side of the policemen: he thought Katurian ought to be shot for crimes against literature. And the stories, whose telling takes up a great deal of this play, are certainly part of my problem with the text, because it's crucial that we believe in their narrative enchantment. They are slight, one-dimensional shadows of the master fabulists that McDonagh is aping: Kafka, Borges, Marquez, Schultz. If they have the heartlessness of traditional fairytale, they do not possess its profoundly unsettling strangeness (a quality Caryl Churchill brilliantly exploits, for example, in Skriker). Certainly, they don't in any way mitigate the silliness of the plot.

And, like the stories themselves, all this gruesome cruelty is curiously affectless. At no point, despite the best efforts of the performers, is there even the edge of threat in the violence on stage. It is there to create a frisson, the illusion that by witnessing this cartoon mayhem we are somehow peering into the darkness of the human soul (from a comfy chair, to be sure, which is well-padded with laughs). And if the violence on stage is like the hammer that regularly flattens Wile E. Coyote, well, who cares? He'll just accordion back to his proper size and start running around again: we know that he's not really dead, and that he never feels any real pain. There's no risk for any of us: we know it's all pretending. But that's not how this play is framed by the writer, who wants us to believe that we're watching something edgy and extreme, something that, in his words, allows us "to see things more clearly" by pushing the boundaries. But what are we seeing "more clearly"?

It seemingly becomes clear in the end, when the writer as anti-hero becomes writer-as-hero; although, even here, McDonagh hedges his bets. In the ten seconds while he is waiting to be shot in the head by Tupolski, Katurian narrates his final story (the hedge is that the story is unfinished, so we never get to hear its proper ending). His brother is given a choice by the Pillowman, on the last day before his parents begin to torture him in order to turn his brother into a writer. He can die now, and avoid seven years of dentist drills and his eventual murder by his own brother: or he could live through the certainty of future suffering. And Michal chooses to live, knowing the anguish that awaits him, because he loves his brother's stories.

(I know I have a lamentably literal mind. But I'm willing to bet that, in the unlikely event of some thug giving a victim the choice between having his elbows drilled or being able to read lovely stories in some far future, the victim would go for whole elbows every time. No matter who was writing them: even if it was Kafka himself. And I say that victim would be right.)

This post-mortem moment is underscored by the simultaneous decision of the psychotic cop Ariel, moved by Katurian's recognition of his own suffering, to preserve the stories rather than to burn them, as ordered by his superior. Even so, it's hard to escape the feeling that McDonagh is winking knowingly at the audience. Yes, the writer is vain and a bit nasty, isn't he? But his stories live on, all the same...and that, after all, is what matters.

Gentle reader, this is where I rebel.

Putting aside false modesty with my usual unseemly alacrity, I can say that I have devoted a large part of my life and considerable material sacrifice to the idea that writing is important. I believe, with Kafka, that it can be the axe that breaks the frozen sea inside us. I take Rilke at his word when he claims that it means "you must change your life". Rightly or wrongly, stupidly or otherwise, I believe in the necessity of the liberating possibilities that are offered by human imagination. It seems to me that if society as a whole were more literate in the byways of our desires, if we were better able to contemplate our own inadmissable longings, our cruelties and pain and terrors, or - perhaps most confrontingly of all - our capacities for love or joy, then we might be able to better deal with our realities. And I think that art is the major technology that we have invented for investigating and expressing these complex, amoral desires.

In The Pillowman, it seems to me that McDonagh is doing something rather different from this. If the story is its own justification, a thesis I am perfectly willing to accept, this story's justification is no more serious than a cheap thrill, slumming it in the bad suburbs of the intellect. McDonagh in fact is inoculating us against consciousness, craftily removing all psychic peril from the exercise of art. The play's inescapable assertion - that the universal, timeless (inject favourite superlative) magic of art redeems the actual pain of a human being - misrepresents the amoral claim that imagination makes upon consciousness. Its callousness is a cynical inversion of the part that pain often - but not always - plays in the creation of art. And it artfully places the writer at the centre of his own redemptive universe, hermetically sealed from critical inquiry by his own genius.

I guess such manoeuvering has its own kind of genius, and there's no doubt that McDonagh's measure of an audience's general tolerance for reality - or art - is more finely judged than my own. Sifting through reviews of different productions of this play, I read again and again how harrowing and stomach-churning it is. I concede that the play is telling us all the time how harrowing and stomach-churning it all is. Put it next to the real thing - Sarah Kane, Franz Xavier Kroetz, Fernando Arabal - and its pretensions become readily apparent.

The MTC production is effectively directed by Simon Phillips, although close up I felt rather too aware of the workings of Gabriela Tylesova's elaborate set. And it features bravura performances: in particular, Greg Stone as Ariel, Kim Gyngell as Tupolski and a virtuoso turn from Dan Wyllie as Michal are sheerly pleasurable to watch, and make the three hours much less burdensome than they otherwise might be. The Pillowman has some killer one-liners and draws freely from the kind of to-and-fro banter exemplified by Abbot and Costello. And therein, I think, lies the authentic charm of the play, which this production exploits with elan: it's a comedy with grand guignol dressing. The rest is just tosh.

Update: The debate continues in New York on Parabasis.


parabasis said...

As you may know, I enjyoed The Pillowman. Of course, the play is constantly telling you "DON'T THINK ABOUT ME, JUST BE ENTERTAINED" so I went with it on that. But I think as one considers it more, it does kind of break down a bit. And you and I agree that Katurian's stories are terrible.

Anonymous said...

yes, when i saw the first production at the national theatre in london, i thought that mcdonough had foist this daft juvenilia on them as revenge for their weak-kneed refusal to produce the rather better 'lieutenant of inishmore'. though, to be honest, i thought the silly fairy stories (elegantly realised on that occasion by john crowley), which at least had some internal coherence, were rather better than the story of the play itself, which made no sense at all. the (inexplicably) insane parents i can just about take. the way the writer's character wanders all over the place in response to the demands of the stupid plot (and the knee-jerk fetishisation of writing) made my blood boil.

it was really quite surprising (and depressing) so many people liked it. but i guess it was at least entertaining moment to moment. and so much theatre isn't even that.

Anonymous said...

And just as with The History Boys you have here the explanation I hadn't been able to articulate (or at least had never gotten around to articulating) as to why I couldn't stand what everybody else seemed to be so crazy about. Ms. Croggon, I know we have not been introduced and you're a married woman, but I think I love you.

(I don't know whether Phillips's staging was as graphic as the Broadway production [some Stateside productions pull punches with the violence], but the latter was elaborately realized and absolutely horrifying--it severely disturbed my sleep for two nights in a row after seeing it--and I came out of it wondering to what end I had been thus made to suffer. I'm prepared to be kicked in the chest by Churchill or Kane or, you know, Euripides. I trust them to take me somewhere I haven't been, maybe somewhere I'm afraid to go. I know I won't look back on their characters when the play is over and say simply, "Christ, what a bunch of assholes.")

Anonymous said...

I didn't enjoy the play that much. To put it simplistically, I found it too gratuitously gruesome for my taste, though I admit to, e.g., finding myself laughing at some of the one-liners, so it did have some entertaining moments for me.
However I don't think that there is such a thing as The Purpose of writing, literature, etc. Why cannot it not sometimes be important or life changing, sometimes just a entertaining storywith no real significance, sometimes revolve around word play, sometimes...., etc.? I can accept that variability without liking all the types equally. And there is scope for distinguishing good from bad within the broad types, so I'm not saying that anything is just as good as anything else.
Even when something is important and life changing, I'm sceptical of writers who set out to achieve that purpose. Trying to be deep and profound is like trying to be spontaneous--the outcome is generally a contrived and phony imitation of the real thing. There can be genuinely significant writing, just as there can be genuine spontaneity, but I'm doubtful that it results from trying to do it. That's not to say that it is an accident when it occurs, any more than genuine spontaneity is an accident when it does occur.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks for all the comments (it does sound as if the UK/US production, which I gather had the same staging, was more gruesome than what we had here).

Me, I don't have a beef with populist art. Really. I absolutely see the point of entertainment as a value. What gets me is when work that is clearly pulling all the commercial strings appropriates and rides on the emotional legitimacy and intellectual cachet that are associated with "serious" art, which seemed to me to be happening here.

To my mind, it's a question of earning it. This is a complicated question, and no, there are no hard and fast rules or boundaries, and in the end any judgment is debatable. There are works written in popular forms that, to my mind, do earn such legitimacy (Cormac McCarthy is one such writer) and works presuming on this artistic legitimacy that don't (Michel Houellebecq is my arch example of that). You can't generalise. This was just my response - primarily from the point of view of a practising writer because, after all, this play was explicitly about writing - to a particular work.

Anne-Marie said...

I saw The Pillowman last night.

Last night's audience REALLY didn't like it (neither did I). Over 100 left during interval and there was a steady stream walking out in act 1.

I thought the production failed the script. But the script is very self indulgent.

My review is on

Ben Ellis said...

Anne-Marie, I'm not a fan of this play, but I don't think that people leaving a production means that there's anything essentially "wrong" with it and to say so without qualification belies a reliance upon ideological hegemony. If you don't believe me, follow the ruckus over the walk-outs at Mike Daisey's performance.

There are any number of reasons why somebody might leave or walk-out of a production. If the audience member believes that being absent from the remainder of the work is a better usage of their time, then perhaps the production might be doing us a service by delineating where the cultural fault-lines exist between audience, company or economy and society. That may be the intention of the production or it may noy, but to create the logical equation, walk-out=play/production is bad, reeks of Andrew Bolt-style post-mob justification.

Alison Croggon said...

Excellent (and important) point Ben - and nice to hear your voice again!

Of course, I know people who think there's something seriously wrong when they DON'T get walkouts...

Anonymous said...

Your point is fair enough Ben, but Anne-Marie didn't trash the production "without qualification". If you follow the link she provided you'll see she goes into a fair amount of detail as to where she believed the production failed.

I found the point she raised about the mass walkout interesting in relation to Alison's experience of having watched the play being received with a "storm of applause".

Alison Croggon said...

Yes, very enthusiastic applause on the first night - more so than usual, I thought (first nights being first nights etc, I don't always go on press nights because they're not typical - but that's another discussion). I know of at least one walkout tho, our blogger colleague Richard Watts. I didn't notice empty seats after interval, but then, I wasn't looking.

I think Ben was responding to Anne-Marie's comment that if there are walk-outs, something is wrong with the production. And his point that it ain't necessarily so is a good one. After all, during the premiere season of Not I they locked the doors and covered the toilet sign so the audience couldn't escape. (Frantic audience members were, apparently, hiding in the toilets). Depressing thought, all the same, if this is too hard-core for MTC audiences...

Anne-Marie said...

Taken out of context the statement is indeed Boltish. I shall tone my foolhardiness down....

However, context was the sheer amount of people who left, when they left and why. (thanks Craig) It is very unusual for an MTC audience to leave en mass.

This is a company whose programming decisions appear to be based on the specific likes of its loyal (and demographically measurable) audience. (Which I'm certainly not saying I agree with and is also another discussion.)

The opinions of opening night were very positive. Opening audiences tend to be positive and supportive and (as Alison implied) shows on press/openings can be very different.

I couldn't make opening, so got to see it with a mob who paid for their tickets. This audience had a very different general opinion.

Ben Ellis said...

Thanks, Anne-Marie, for the clarifications, contexts and contrasts. What did you sense were the particular complaints about this play or production? Did you feel that the audience on your night reacted against a perception of gratuitous violence, or against the pace, or against something else entirely? Although, you're probably right, some of this may pertain to another conversation.

It's great (and even helpful for some of us theatre artists) to read of different audience reactions on separate nights, so cheers.

Anonymous said...

I went on the 2nd preview night. My impression (and impressions can of course easily be wrong) is that people who attend previews are regular MTC subscribers who are looking to cut down on costs, plus there are a few ghouls who hope that something may go terribly wrong. While some may have left at interval, there wouldn't have been many. I was seated near the rear and I could see few empty seats after interval. There was a big ovation at the end and the cast looked chuffed at the reception they got.

Anonymous said...

Hi Alison,

great review though I still thoroughly enjoyed the script (I've not seen the production).

I agree with your conclusion that the "authentic charm of the play" is that "it's a comedy with grand guignol dressing". I think the writing is ferocious and witty and sustains on that level for about 80% of the time.

The final impression however is that the only dramatic point that is being demostrated is along the lines (using a Robert McKee type notion of a "controlling idea"): Art survives because the artist is as violent as the state.

The play has little to say about the function of art in a totalitarian society, but that the artist who collaborates with and does the violent work of the totalitarian state may be rewarded. As a result the play's conclusion feels hollow and the fact that the protagonist is an artist is almost a red herring.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Abe, that seems acute to me. Perhaps the fact that the play is by an artist isn't a red herring...but now we're getting into circular and dubious territory. (An ampty play as a comment on the emptiness of culture, etc). Which may well be part of the joke, of course, for examining it too closely. All a bit cynical for naive me, I fear.

Allen O'Leary said...

Being in London I saw 'lieutenant of inishmore' first and thought it, well, fantastic. So I was very excited about going to see Pillowman and HUGELY disappointed by it. I felt like my head had been pushed around a bit but my heart entirely unengaged. People I know here who liked it are 'intellectual/literary' types. Left this theatre writer in the cold...

However I did soften a bit when I heard that this was written well before Inishmore - if I had pulled something like this off as a young man I think I would be pretty pleased with myself too! And interesting to note the interval between inishmore and anything new...

Nice reviews Alison, keep them coming.

Anonymous said...

I saw this play in BELGRADE a number of years ago, in the Serbian language. A friend dragged me along to see some spunk she was in love with in what she said was a role “written for him.” I did not know anything about the play itself. So it made perfect sense to me to believe it was a Serbian play. Until I read the program at interval. Somehow it lost its magic after that.

What struck me was the public’s willingness to laugh at anything and the actors’ willingness to get more violent the more the public laughed. The general feel of the play was that it was a COMEDY. From beginning to end. A slap-stick meets gore-film meets Tarantino-esque kind of comedy. It seems, reading Alison’s response to the MTC production, (which I have not seen, so my comment is to do with the writing only) an audience like the Serbian audience takes "the actual pain of a human being" as depicted on stage, with a lot less earnestness than a western audience might. Especially because the premise is so obviously linked to their own cultural and political experience. I’m not sure that many people took the play seriously, and certainly no one commented on the “art” of it. (Perhaps a reflection the lack thereof, which Alison talks about). Post show, most people sighed or just shook their heads at the familiarity of violence and there was an “oh, well, that’s life, we know it’s fucked… but at least it was funny!” So there is something to be said for the humour, which I LOVED. Being able to laugh at it with a bunch of people who tackle violence and totalitarian concepts on a daily basis in one way or another puts the play in it’s rightful place for me. This play was for them primarily, a good night of entertainment!

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Bojana, thanks for that perspective, which is interesting. I am not sure if you're taking issue with my review, but if you are, I agree with you - in fact, I say myself that its true charm is as a comedy. What I was objecting to wasn't the violence at all, but to what I considered the pretensions of the writing, which seemed to me to be coming from a privileged place that merely served the vanity of the writer. And yes, I reacted very negatively to that.

I deeply admire writers who make comedies that are much crueller than this one of McDonagh's (Tadeusz Rosewicz, for instance, the Polish playwright and poet, who is the real thing - but after all, he was a writer who DID deal with violence and totalitarianism on a daily basis).

I gather this production has had a horrendous time with walkouts, which is another question, about the MTC audiences and the limits of what they will tolerate. The cliche is that the MTC audiences are deeply conservative, and maybe this proves it (which bodes badly for future MTC programming...) But who knows why they're walking out? Perhaps they too sense a meretriciousness they don't like? Or maybe that violence - which is pretty low-grade, after all - does offend them? I don't know how you find out, but it would be interesting to know.

Jack Heath said...

I think The Pillowman works for the lowbrow punters who simply want to watch a man find a dead child under his mattress, and it works for the intellectual theatre-goers who are looking for critiques of censorship, artistic responsibility, and cultural attitudes to suicide (to name but three of the many themes).

McDonagh didn't include anything for the few who find themselves in the middle-ground, but I'm struggling to hold that against him. Or perhaps Ms Croggan (and the majority of the commenters) just saw a poor production of it?

Alison Croggon said...

One of the defining attributes of middle-brow theatre is precisely those decipherable "themes". Highbrow doesn't bother with "issues". Just sayin.