Saturday 16 December 2017

Review: The Pillowman

Actors David McSavage and Peter Campion in The Pillowman
Actors David McSavage and Peter Campion in The Pillowman

I'd love to see the inside of Martin McDonagh's head.

Actually, I'd like to think that the man behind The Leenane Trilogy, In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths would get a kick out of that sentence, and maybe even expand upon it (The Inside of Martin McDonagh's Head - a daring and ghoulish new play, coming to theatres in 2016).

McDonagh, after all, plays by his own rules, blending the surreal and the gruesomely violent with his own kaleidoscopic vision of reality. The man also does self-reference like nobody else.

Take, for example, a key scene in McDonagh's mischievous black comedy, The Pillowman. Basically, there are three men holed up in a tower-like interrogation room that looks like something out of a fairytale. One of them is a hapless writer named Katurian - the other two are with the law.

It's a good cop/bad cop situation and, eventually, Katurian cracks, informing himself, the police and, indeed, the audience, that he is a writer in a totalitarian state, who is being questioned about his (horrific) short stories and their similarities to a number of child murders in the town. Thanks, lads - we, uh, already got there.


Locked up in a nearby cell we have Katurian's disabled brother, Michal. The two are questioned, shouted at and tortured.

What's the deal with Katurian's disturbing stories, we wonder? Have they inspired a series of copycat murders, or are Katurian and Michal responsible for the killings?

The Pillowman (named after one of Katurian's ghastly stories) takes on an almost Tim Burton-like quality, bringing to life some of the writer's nightmarish tales. There's also room for a beautifully choreographed family history segment. It's like watching a huge pop-up book come to life, and director Andrew Flynn's awesome set is the real star of the show.

However, even at its most imaginative, The Pillowman suffers due to McDonagh's tendency to over-write.

He also wraps up most of the story in act one. As a result, the final hour plays out more like a series of self-indulgent, long-winded character studies than a proper second/third act. And that dialogue is far too clever for its own good.

Peter Campion is excellent as Katurian. Sometimes, he's our narrator; sometimes, he's on his knees, begging for freedom. Whatever the scenario, Campion rarely misses a note and Michael Ford-FitzGerald makes for a frighteningly good Michal. But what's up with the cops, Ariel (Gary Lydon) and Tupolski (David McSavage)?

Theatre newcomer McSavage seems entirely incapable of playing anyone other than himself. He looks distracted, and unsure about accents.

The supporting cast members (pawns in Katurian's bizarre bedtime stories) are wonderful. Overall, it's an effective offering, but not as marvellous a display as McDonagh thinks.

Rating: ***

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