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September 21, 2019

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A fairy tale where people don’t live happily ever after

TONY Award-winning play “The Pillowman” is being staged at Shanghai’s Majestic Theater, introducing audiences to the charm of “dark fairy tales.”

Presented by the Beijing Drum Tower West Culture Co, the play is based on the work of Irish-British playwright Martin McDonagh. The original work received two Tony Awards, as well as the 2004 Olivier Award for Best New Play.

Dark fairy tales are not the traditional fairy tales we grow up with. They are not necessarily scary, but they are often sad and showcase the “dark side” of characters. Sometimes they involve crimes.

“The Pillowman” stemmed, in part, from McDonagh’s experience of composing fairy tales early in his writing career. Attempting to rewrite fairy tales he remembered from childhood, he realized that “there’s something dark about them that doesn’t quite come through.”

Drum Tower West’s first version of “The Pillowman” was produced five years ago for small theater venues. The company revised it this year to suit larger stages, though the plot remained the same.

It’s a tale of three children missing in a small town. Two of them are confirmed to have been killed, while the third remains unaccounted for. The evidence points to amateur short story writer Katurian, who works in a slaughterhouse.

During the investigation by detectives Ariel and Tupolski, a story about murdered children, written by Katurian, comes to light. Who is the murderer: Katurian or his mentally disturbed brother? Is Katurian’s novel just a dark fairy tale or a tale of truth?

Ten dark fairy tales are told through the character of Katurian during the play. “The Pillowman” is one of them.

In that story, the pillowman visits people on the verge of suicide because of the tortured lives they have led. He travels back in time to their childhoods and convinces them to commit suicide and avoid a life of suffering. This task saddens the man made of pillows, so he decides to visit his own younger self, who readily commits suicide. This relieves the pillowman’s sadness, but it also causes all the children he saved to live out their miserable lives and eventually die alone.

Another of the stories, “The Writer and the Writer’s Brother,” tells how Katurian heard his brother Michal being tortured by their parents and subsequently killed his parents.

Apart from being a playwright, McDonagh is also a screenwriter, producer and director. His recent creation, the dark comedy film “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” won him four awards at the 2017 Golden Globes, including best screenplay.

“McDonagh is good at writing about ‘evil people,’ but he always manages to display tiny but shining aspects in their personalities,” said Shi Hang, producer of “The Pillowman.”

“Drama stages are filled with acting skills and patterns instead of real good stories,” Shi said. “‘The Pillowman’ stands out. I love the way the play tells stories. The stories are getting darker one after another, but getting fancier the same time.”

Shi said he has been questioned many times about the charm and even “educational function” of dark fairy tales.

“You don’t always have to ‘come to a meaningful conclusion’ after hearing a story,” said Shi.

“While traditional fairy tales describe a flawless world, dark fairy tales usually involve real humanity and people’s true thoughts. The thoughts are usually not so ‘noble’ and people are reluctant to talk about them openly.”

Shi said he wants audiences “to find brightness in darkness” when they watch the play.

“A dark fairy tale is like a huge dark curtain covering the sky,” he explained. “The little positive aspects in human nature are the stars. Only in darkness can very weak light become conspicuous and precious. Dark fairy tales provide a different angle to observe humanity.”

Shi’s interpretation of dark fairy tales is echoed by the play’s director, Zhou Ke.

“I have been told by a few theatergoers that they didn’t really catch the ‘bright sides’ from the dark tales told in the play,” she said. “Maybe it’s because they are too happy and they are not used to walking in the dark.”

Zhou added: “Different audiences have different interpretations when watching a play. I don’t want and don’t expect them to come out with similar feedback. At the same time, it’s an author’s and creator’s duty to just tell the story.”

Zhou said the challenge of revising the play into a version for 1,000-seat theaters lies in how to “spread the energy to a larger audience.”

“We made visual and audio changes, as well as upgrades in set design, music and multimedia application,” Zhou said. “What remained unchanged is our intention to tell audiences good stories.”

Chinese singer Zhang Chu, a rock and roller who attained fame in the early 1990s, composed the song “Feather” for “The Pillowman.”

According to Zhou, the song will be played only at the end of the play, accompanying audiences as they leave the theater and leaving them to think about the play on their way home.

“The song is lonely, sad, but also warm, just like the pillowman, making people want to hug him,” said Zhou.


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