Now known more for his films In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths Martin McDonagh started as a playwright. Performed in 2003 although written in the mid 90s The Pillowman won an Olivier for Best New Play amongst other awards and is by his own admission his most cinematic piece for the stage. For a writer like me who who writes rather theatrical pieces, it was interesting to look at something where the dialogue is very much the focus of the drama.
So what writing tips did I pick up this month?
- Simply telling a story on stage can be just as powerful as a monologue to get inside the head of the characters
The Pillowman is about the power of stories. Set in an undescribed totalitarian dictatorship the main character Katurian is a writer under investigation for 2 child murders as they have been killed exactly as described in some stories he has written. A little girl has also gone missing. Does he know where she is?
There are long sections where Katurian tells the stories he’s written defending his work and they do what a monologue can do: at once you’re opening up the character’s inner world, getting to know his tastes, what he thinks about, what his world view is. They’re not verbose. They are quite straight and simple as McDonagh lets the images in the stories do all the work. Yes, they are very dark, but the style reminded me how monologues or in fact stories told as stories on stage don’t have to be poetry to be poetic and resonant.
- Push the boundaries of how you present your story
I agree with McDonagh. In the quote above ( found in this interview here) he’s referring to The Pillowman and the techniques he uses are definitely very cinematic but they work on stage too and are a reminder that fourth wall can be transcended even in what seems like a realistic piece. 2 scenes (including 1 scene which is an act of its own) is solely Katurian telling a story which is acted out with other actors playing the characters in front of the audience. If it was a film, this would be a voice over, but having the storyteller on stage reminds you that you’re watching a piece that is about stories. At the end of the play the dead rise and narrate the very last moments directly addressing the audience, pulling together the themes of story and the whole piece becomes a ‘story’ from one narrator.
It made me think even harder about how the very best plays use every moment they can to bring the piece together and make their point (if they have one), and I’m definitely going to be trying to go further with the new piece I’m working on to be more self-conscious of how the piece is packaged and presented to the audience.
- Keep the audience guessing and they’ll go into dark places with you
I think I’ve written before that police investigations are not my favourite kind of drama as they end up being very static and without the techniques mentioned above I would’ve lost interest very quickly. However, the world McDonagh presents and the questions the play raises are interesting and relevant, and the twists in the story keep you guessing as it focuses you more heavily on the plot rather than the rather unpalatable subjects the play discusses. A good tip when working on tough material.
July’s playwright: Duncan MacMillan
A couple of years ago I went to a workshop run by MacMillan and in it he talked of a play he’d written about environmentalism, but that he’d written it through a love story. This play, Lungs, is showing in Paines Plough’s Roundabout on the South Bank so I’m going to watch it and see what tips I can pick up.