I’ve lived through Brexit and, vicariously, through Tuesday’s American exit from the values I thought prevailed in my world. Last night I trustingly turned up to a Decadent Theatre Company performance of Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman. Its examination of ‘the writer’ had been warmly recommended to me.
I found myself isolated in a roomful of people responding with hilarity to a play built upon a catalogue of brutalities: child torture (several kinds, described in detail, and at the hands of parents, guardians and strangers), child rape (paternal), child murder (parental and stranger) and adult torture (again, a variety: enacted unconvincingly, overheard and threatened). Marvellous. So post-postmodern.
Then there were the laughs to be had from unabashed racial mockery. I don’t think I’ve heard people laughing at ‘chink’ jollity since the seventies, and even then it was only canned laughter; I wasn’t actually in the room with them.
Now I know what emotional isolation means. Brexit and Amerexit were painful to those of us who realised we had been living in a social bubble. But at least we were surrounded by our fellow bubble-dwellers and we could share the pain. Last night, I experienced the sensation of alienation from the herd, and in the most unexpected place.
I love theatre. I enjoy having my assumptions challenged, I like being surprised and I don’t need to be reassured. But I was unsurprised to be told today that McDonagh despises theatre. His contempt is apparent in this play’s shameless annexation of the plot of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men and the substitution of comedy for the touching, representative, authentic human emotion of the original relationship between a story-teller and his ‘learning difficulties’ brother-figure.
To anyone familiar with Steinbeck’s plot, the anomalous presence of a pillow in the cell in which the story-teller kills his dependent companion would immediately have suggested the smothering. If not at the scene’s opening, however, as soon as Katurian begins the familiar comfort-story (a device lifted straight from Steinbeck), it is blindingly obvious what is to come. I’m told that the surprise element is this play’s great effect. Only if you had neither read Steinbeck nor listened to the play’s beat-the-audience-over-the-head-with-the-theme ‘pillowman story’.
Where Steinbeck offers insight into the humanity and value of those who cannot operate in the same way as the majority, McDonagh offers laughs at a disabled character whose unintended absurdity is the fully-functional reasoning capability his creator couldn’t resist giving him. In this production, Katurian’s brother’s mental disability is intentionally signalled only by a silly voice and gormless smile. Ho ho. And, BTW, he turns out to be a psychopath. More ho ho.
So, the anticipated discussion of the predicament of the writer? I tried really hard to find something. For starters, a coy reference to Kafka’s ‘K’. ‘Oooh’, as the torturer, Tupolski, might mock. McDonagh does nothing with his superficial totalitarian state references. Interesting that this play is not performed for laughs in Estonia. Perhaps they’re just not sufficiently post-postmodern there? Katurian (alias KKK – ho ho ho) feels so little fear, that his interaction with his interrogators transitions in minutes from servile ingratiation to demands for his rights.
Katurian exhibits a writerly desire that his oeuvre should survive him, to the extent that he claims authorship of the murders Michal has committed – though there is no reason for this as he is already bang-to-rights for his brother’s murder. However, without this implausibility in the plot, we couldn’t have the comedy of the ‘tortured’ girl emerging in green spray-paint from her living burial, so let it pass.
Katurian’s legacy, however, is stories that are slight and ugly, and he has so little command of language that he misinforms his brother that ‘to aggravate’ means ‘to annoy’. Perhaps this is the author’s double-joke; a wink to those who feel cleverer than Katurian? If so, don’t wink at me. I’m not your friend.
I’ve asked people I respect to share with me the merit of this play, because I cannot see it, and do not want to be left out in the cold. Nothing comes back, however, but the surprise-factor. So I went to the critics, to paraphrase Plato, and got pretty much the same response as he had from the poets. Superb tosh. The emperor is truly naked. Listen to Katy Hayes of the Independent:
What begins as a Pinteresque comedy of menace, two toughs in a room violently interrogating a writer with possible political undertones, repositions itself as a phantasmagoria of creativity.
In other words, ‘Beats me what’s going on, but I’ve heard it’s good, and Pinter writes nasty stuff that people laugh at too. Critical credentials established, vague long word employed, job done’. Now try this from Decadent’s website:
The Pillowman describes and portrays violence in order to fuel empathy for the offender and for those that suffer. Through its distinct cynicism, The Pillowman uses violence to dismiss realism and to challenge the concept of the “well-made play”.
Now at last I have something worth laughing at. And partly agreeing with, funnily enough. The Pillowman really does challenge the concept of a ‘well-made play’. It’s far too long (2 hrs 45 mins. God help us). The Irish Times’s critic, Peter Crawley, is perceptive when he concedes that :
[‘The Pillowman’] suffers from [McDonagh’s] customary overwriting, where brilliant flairs of imagination yield routinely to heavy-handed repetitiveness. “Um, could you skip on to the end, please?” asks Michael [sic] at one point, quite understandably. He could be talking about his own scene.
I had the exact same reaction to this line, and by the final act, in which the torturer Ariel threatens to burn Katurian’s stories, I was not only willing him on, but wishing the whole play had hit the flames before it spoiled my Thursday night, and ‘repositioned’ me outside the Cork theatre bubble.