I love stories. I love to watch them, listen to them, and get in lost in them, and I don’t care if their delivery is simple and minimalistic, or majestic and grand. All I want is to be told a good story. I often wonder if this is why I love theatre so much, because in theatre, the story is king. Broadway may have the budgets to produce awe-inducing spectacles, but it is often the case that the best shows are those where talented actors tell the audience a great story. Not surprisingly, my personal favourite theatre play not only tells a great story, but revolves around the art of storytelling itself. This play is The Pillowman, by Martin McDonagh, and after seeing it for the first time eight years ago, it has haunted me ever since. A copy of the script sits on my bookshelf, battered and worn from repeated readings, and if I ever find myself within driving distance of a production, I can always be found waiting in line for a ticket. Given its dark themes and violence against children, many people question my love for this play, and while I admit this story is not the easiest to digest, the beauty in which it is told is breathtaking.
The Pillowman tells the story of a writer named Katurian K. Katurian (his parents were funny people), as he is hauled in for questioning by the police of an unnamed totalitarian state after several murders of children in his town bear a striking resemblance to the content of his stories. Over the course of the play, the truth behind these killings is revealed, Katurian’s family history is laid bare, and the impact of storytelling is debated and celebrated. McDonagh’s writing is unparalleled, drawing comedy from the darkest of subjects, and the characters are fully realized and never succumb to the stereotypes they could so easily become. There are moments of hysterical laughter, unbearable suspense, heartbreaking revelations, and tender exchanges, sometimes within only a couple of pages, and I’ve never seen a play that generates so much laughter alongside so many gasps of terror.
Throughout the play, each character takes their turn as a storyteller, and it is within these moments that the implicit urge within all of us to tell a story is revealed. The characters can barely contain their glee at getting lost in telling their tales, nor can the audience resist getting caught up in the narrative, and while the stories may be dark, they are vivid, eloquent, and beautiful. Early on in the play, Katurian declares that the first job of a writer is to tell a good story, and McDonagh succeeds spectacularly in this mandate. Within the pages of The Pillowman, he has created a play that moves audiences to laugh, cry, cringe, and gasp at what they are witnessing unfold, and I know I will never tire of watching this amazing work of art. Should you ever have a chance to see this play, I urge you to check out this contemporary classic, and get swept up in the art and the power of storytelling.