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William Shakespeare's Long Lost First Play (abridged)

by Reed Martin & Austin Tichenor

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The Pillowman

The Pillowman

AUTHOR: Martin McDonagh

VENUE: St James Cavalier

DATES: 4, 5, 6, 11, 12, 13 November 2005

EXTRA: 17, 18, 19, 20 November 2005

DIRECTOR: Chris Gatt

CAST: Jes Camilleri, Manuel Cauchi, Kevin Drake, Alan Paris, Sharon Bezzina,Charmaine Scerri-Parnis, Adrian Buckle, Andrè Agius, HarleyMallia, Matthew Drake

SUMMARY: A multi award winning dark comedy set in an unnamed totalitarianstate, The Pillowman introduces us to writer Katurian who isbeing interrogated by policemen due to the similarity between hisstories and actual murders happening in his neighbourhood.

WHAT THE PRESS SAID:

Directed by Chris Gatt, this contained three quite brilliant performances from Kevin Drake, Manuel Cauchi and Jes Camilleri. — Showtime, 2-6-06

Best Performances in 2005/6: Manuel Cauchi in The Pillowman — Showtime, 2-6-06

Yet if one is to look at a performance like THE PILLOWMAN held last month at St James, one looks at a performance that works and not specifically at the identity it gives us. If I’m going to fall into the stereotype of having to rate things, as is normally done in annual round-ups, then the Oscar for Best Performance as a whole goes to this event by Unifaun, produced by Adrian Buckle, directed by Chris Gatt. Cast included Jes Camilleri convincingly playing the role of an intellectually disabled man, Kevin Drake, Manuel Cauchi and Alan Paris. —Louise Ghirlando, Weekender, 31 December 2005

Brilliant imagination, black humour, comic relief, and engaged acting have been put together to create a disturbing, intense, and superbly worked performance. —Louise Ghirlando, Weekender, 19-11-05

It’s the best piece of theatre to hit the boards in Malta for quite a few years… This play is a cut above the rest, and then some. —I.M.Beck, The Times, 19-11-05

A play set to blow your mind away. —Noemi Zarb, The Sunday Times, 06-11-05

Electrifying play! —Mario Azzopardi, Kultura 21, 20-11-05

One of the best theatre productions I’ve ever seen in Malta… A memorable evening! —Dr Alfred Sant (Leader of the Opposition), It-Torca, 27-11-05

The actors were exceptional, namely with Kevin Drake as Katurian, but also with Manuel Cauchi, Jes Camilleri and Alan Paris giving lifetime performances. —Dr Alfred Sant (Leader of the Opposition), It-Torca, 27-11-05

The Pillowman is unequivocally terrific theatre. —The Malta Independent, 05-11-05

It is a play full of entertainment, not one to miss but with no guarantee that you will manage to sleep at night after this exceptional experience . . . —Jo Ann Vassallo, Weekender, 05-11-05

Fear, fiction and performance fuse to form an intriguing spectacle. —Claire Bonello, Circle Magazine, November 05

 

 

TELLING STORIES

 

In Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman (Unifaun Theatre at St James Cavalier) the central character is Katurian, a writer of short stories living in an unspecified totalitarian state, who is being interrogated mercilessly by two policemen. They are investigating what they suspect is a connection between the plot and characters in Kat urian’s stories and a series of recent murders of children in the area.  Katurian is a prolific writer, but it appears that a good many of his stories are about  violent deaths, mostly  of children, or of their cruelly abusive treatment by adults.

 

Katurian strongly protests his innocence, and maintains that just because he describes all these unpleasant events, he is not inciting people to carry out what is in the stories, and that in any case he certainly has not committed the murders of the three children.  Throughout this fairly long play, which runs for 150 minutes, even when he is under pressure, threatened with torture or having actually been tortured, it is clear that above all it is his stories that matter.  Whatever happens, his stories must survive him.  He will lie, he will humiliate him himself, if he thinks this will prevent his stories from being destroyed.

 

This obsessive love for his own creations and his insistence that he should never be held responsible for those psychopaths who are inspired by the stories to commit hideous murders, are at the heart of this play.  I also suspect that McDonagh is using the play partly, or even mainly, as an apologia for his previous plays.  His work is celebrated for the inventively lurid nature of the violent acts enacted by his characters.  His “The lieutenant of Inishmoor”, for instance, starts off with two men discussing what happened to a cat, half of whose head has been destroyed and part of whose brain is seen to fall on the stage, then goes on to a whole series of horrors, such as a scene in which an Irish terrorist is torturing a man who is hanging down from his legs whose toenails he has cut off with a razor and is about to slice off the man’s nipples when he is interrupted.  One of the later events is the shooting in the head of the torturer.

 

This work is a savage farce about the cruelties the Irish have been inflicting on each other for many years, so McDonagh no doubt sees he is justified in showing these events in his plays and refuses to accept himself as a cause of such acts in real life.  All the same, he is aware of the fact that deranged people may be inspired by them.  In “The Pillowman” we discover after a long while that the child murders were carried out by Katurian’s greatly retarded brother Michal after having secretly read the stories.  Must a writer censor himself to make sure that people like Michal do not do this kind of thing?

 

It appears that McDonagh does not think so, but he makes it easy for the audience to disagree by making Katurian a strange and not very likeable man who can commit, and has committed in the past, very serious crimes if he feels he is morally justified in doing so.  We feel sorry for him, without being distressed,  by what happens to him at the end of the play.

 

Katurian is finicky, as a writer should be, about the use of language, though at one point he uses the verb “aggravate” in the very colloquial sense of “get on the nerves of” and gives this meaning to the puzzled Michal.  He is quick to point out unconvincing details in the story he is told by Tupolski, the cold and pitiless detective, and through this story McDonagh is bringing out the difference between Katurian’s stories, frightening but never didactic and meant solely to tell a story (Katurian at one point seems to echo E.M. Forster who famously wrote that above all a novel must tell a story) and Tupolski’s story the aim of which is clearly to support his vision of himself as a man who protects the vulnerable from harm even if he does not care if his work is acknowledged by the community.

 

Tupolski could not care less for preserving Katurian’s stories which get saved through the intervention of Ariel, the other cop, who is sadistic when dealing with people accused of killing children, but who really cares for children.  He would have liked to save Katurian, unlike Tupolski who seems to have no kind feelings at all, and when he fails, he carries out Katurian’s wishes by preserving his four hundred stories.  In the last minutes of the play the audience realizes that when early in the play the brutal Ariel tells Katurian that in point of fact it is he who is the good cop and Tupolski the bad one, he has told the truth.

 

Why has McDonagh set the play in a totlitarian country?  I am not sure.  Technically speaking, of course, it makes things easier for the playwright who can present us with someobody who is accused, tried and sentenced without the slightest reference to a court of law.  There may be a deeper reason.  Even in a democracy there can be, and often there is, a large body of opinion that is greatly opposed to the staging of violence on the stage or on the screen.  Tupolski and Ariel are not very different from such people when it comes to judging authors of this type, the only difference being in their ruthless carrying out what they consider to be the community’s vengeance on the culprits.  McDonagh may be telling us that there are many people in England who might wish to treat him as Katurian is treated, and do not do so solely because the country believes in  due course of law.

 

Technically the play is a mixture of realistic scenes and semi-phantasmagoric ones providing flashbacks or, most vividly, dramatizing one of Katurian’s stories, The Little Jesus, in which a little girl who suffers from the delusion of being Jesus, ends up beingcrucified and then buried alive.  These scenes are handled deftly by Chris Gatt, who directs this difficult play with an unfailingly sure touch, in spite of the round theatre’s small size.  This smallness, however, makes the long interrogations much more gripping than they would be on a proscenium stage.  Gatt has managed to cast four of our best male actors in the main roles: Kevin Drake as Katurian, Jes Camilleri as Michal, Manuel Cauchi as Tupolski, and Alan Paris as Ariel, and has enabled them all to give first-class performances, Drake and Camilleri being at their best ever.

 

Drake is a very frightened Katurian who is ready to humour his interrogators, even at their beastliest, at the start, but gradually picks up courage to fight back, knowing he is innocent and eager to defend his literary output. He is most vivid when getting jittery on realizing that his brother too is under arrest, and then in the long scene with Michal, as the full horror of the situation is disclosed, he nearly collapses emotionally.  He  bellows out his rage at the brother whom he has loved and protected for so long but who has now put them both in an impossible situation and then, with a quiet sternness finds himself doing what he has never dreamed of doing before.  Drake’s narration of his stories is pregnant with the quiet pride of an author and is always very lucid.  It is principally the script’s fault that at the end Katurian does not act scared out of his wits.  McDonagh makes it clear that even in his last moments Katurian is doing what he loves doing above all: composing a new story.

 

Camilleri’s Michal with his strange voice and uncertain delivery, and the constant twitching of an arm as he speaks, is a very moving character whose violent acts are all part of the love he bears Katurian.  He has no concept of morality and is in most respects still a little boy seeking how to amuse himself, no matter how.  His relationship with his brother comes out beautifully when he asks Katurian to tell him a story and falls gradually into a sleep that, as he himself suspected it might be, is his very last one.

 

Cauchi is a frigid interrogator, one who, presumably, has schooled himself to have no feelings at all, thus making his hideous work much easier.  Gatt has directed him to drink liquor much of the time, and this makes it easier to see him as a man who has to drive himself to keep sane. Cauchi’s trademark suave style of speech and restrained body language fit well into this interpretation.  He is the boss at the interrogation, and makes it clear repeatedly not just to Katurian but also to Ariel who dislikes him as much as he is disliked.

 

Paris springs his surprise on us towards the end, as the sadistic cop is revealed as having  a soft heart when he deals with vulnerable kids and also with culprits whose acts were morally defensible.  Ariel is not a subtle character, but Paris’s range of tones and stresses make him more interesting even before the final scenes where he grips our attention.

Paul Xuereb, The Sunday Times, 20/11/05

 

Manuel Cauchi as Katurian making a pointKevin Drake and Jes Camilleri as the Katurian brothers

The little JesusManuel Cauchi as Tupolski arguing with Kevin Drake as Katurian

The little writer
Kevin Drake as Katurian and ALan Paris as Ariel

   The discovery

pictures by Joseph A. Borg