“The first duty of a storyteller is to tell a story… That’s what I do, tell stories.”
This is a line from a superb play I saw at The Lyric Theatre in Belfast at the weekend called The Pillowman. Written by the critically acclaimed playwright, screenwriter and film director, Martin McDonagh, the play explores the power of words – of storytelling – through a mediocre writer who’s been hauled in for questioning by a policeman and a detective with a penchant for shooting writers. The story is set against the backdrop of a totalitarian dictatorship, where to be different or to speak your mind – to have a voice – is dangerous.
Our writer – Katurian – admittedly isn’t one of ‘the greats’, and he claims only to want to tell stories, not to create symbolic art, but as the play progresses, we see just how loaded his words really are.
Without giving anything away to those who haven’t seen the play, Katurian is arrested because his stories – tales which mostly depict the gruesome deaths of little children – have seemingly started to happen for real. He doesn’t understand it, and we go on a journey with him as the story unravels and we discover the truth behind the grisly goings-on.
Essentially, The Pillowman explores the potency of stories – how they can inspire people to good; others to bad. They have a weight, a depth that can resonate long after they’ve been read, and they can be interpreted in many different ways.
In my opinion, this is a great play that’s layered with myriad themes and overtures. There’s lots to think about – both in terms of the play itself, the stories created by the fictional writer in the play and also how our upbringing can affect us adults. And that’s before you even begin to peel away the 1984-type world the play is set in.
It brings to mind a book I love, and must re-read – The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. Bulgakov, who lived under the Stalin regime and indeed, initially enjoyed a level of approval from Stalin for his work, later saw his stories and plays banned, as critics condemned him and censorship won out. His fantastical tales, which critiqued Soviet society as he saw it and experienced it, lived on however, finally being published after his death.
Freedom of speech – of thought – is always at risk and should always be protected. The Pillowman, and stories like it, reminds us of this, and of the inherent power that the written word can have.