As you walk into the small space at the Music Art Dance (MAD) School where Irish playwright Martin McDonagh’s ‘The Pillowman’ is being performed, you are greeted by an odd sight: a man sitting at a table with a pillow on his head, bathed in red light. The play hasn’t started yet and the man is inanimate.
As you wait, the anticipation builds. Will he suddenly spring to life and do something completely unexpected? And as you start conjuring different possibilities, the suspense is suddenly broken by a completely unnecessary announcement plugging the play’s venue. It completely kills the suspense, jolts you back to reality and reminds you that you are watching a play and the man in front of you is in fact an actor.
The plot revolves around the arrest of a writer, Katurian, as his stories involving the murder of children are eerily similar to recent killings. Katurian is played by Rouvan Mahmud, who is also the play’s director. The first act comprises Katurian being interrogated and is peppered with his characters’ macabre stories being acted out. The men questioning him are detective Gibrael, played Momin Zafar, and officer Israel, played by Imam Syed.
Zafar is typecast brilliantly for his role. His portrayal of the leering and narcissistic Gibrael is done with attention to inflection and tone. Many times, however, the actor jumbles up his words when delivering some of the lengthier dialogues, leaving the audience confused.
‘The Pillowman’ is supposed to be a powerful experience. But it seemed as if the creators and actors confused unnecessary yelling with intensity. Syed screams out most of his dialogues, perhaps to compensate for any real acting. In fact, most of the interrogation scenes make your ears ring. When all the shouting subsides, the play becomes enjoyable again.
After the intermission, the scene changes to a prison cell where the writer is allowed to speak to his mentally challenged brother Mikal, who is also being held in connection with the murders. Rafeh Mahmud, who portrays Mikal, is exceptional in his role, allowing the audience to feel genuine sympathy for the character. As the scene rolls on, the character takes on a delightfully twisted side.
The scene involves the two best actors in the play and sends chills up your spine. Since the seating arrangement allows you to gauge other people’s reactions, it is safe to say that everyone in the audience is sufficiently awe-struck by Rouvan’s performance and can’t believe they are stuck in a room with someone who is downright insane.
The play, produced by Nida Butt, is a series of hits and near-misses. “Was it creepy enough?” Butt asked the audience after the play ended. That indeed is the question. Since the play has been adapted to suit a Pakistani audience, the Kafa-esque dystopia was not made apparent, instead being replaced by the Azaan starting and ending the play. Why this was done is a mystery in itself. Two of the four actors are actually good, half of the dialogue is not garbled or incomprehensible and one portion of the play is indeed unsettling.
The play will run from October 4 to October 7 and the tickets, which cost Rs850, are available at Agha’s supermarket as well as the MAD school. If you are planning to watch the play please do so, but cut your expectations by half.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 30th, 2012.
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