University of Adelaide Theatre Guild, Little Theatre, 1 - 15 October 2011. Written by Martin McDonagh. Directed by Megan Dansie.
Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman is an unusually bold choice for a non-professional theatre company, and for the University of Adelaide Theatre Guild’s final full production for 2011. It’s a dark and difficult play that resists interpretation. That it is also a kind of fairytale – not to mention extremely funny – marks The Pillowman out as a highly individual piece of theatre, one that is part Tarantino, part Brothers Grimm and wholly engaging.
McDonagh began The Pillowman by writing the short stories which are at its centre. In the play, which is set in an undefined totalitarian society, these stories have been written by the peculiarly-named Katurian K. Katurian (Bart Csorba). There is, perhaps, a nod to Kafka’s Joseph K here and, like K, Katurian finds himself facing bewildering charges, in this case put to him by ‘good cop’ Tupolski (Tony Busch) and ‘bad cop’ Ariel (Gary George). Katurian’s intellectually-disabled brother (Robert Bell) is in the next room and may or may not be being tortured. Katurian is accused of murdering a number of children in fashions which bear striking similarities to the grisly ends met by some of the young protagonists of his stories. The interrogation is punctuated by dreamlike interludes which see Katurian’s characters come to life as he coolly narrates their gruesome demises.
What is perhaps most surprising about all this is how funny it is. McDonagh has mined a rich vein of jet-black humour which dissolves easy distinctions between the horrific and the hilarious; the play brims over with both. The fine cast, under the direction of Megan Dansie, miss little of the play’s barbed comedy, Busch in particular relishing Tupolski’s colourful banter and ludicrous self-aggrandising. George, in a perhaps necessarily larger-than-life performance, is similarly impressive, so too AC Arts graduate Csorba who works laudably hard to make Katurian a both physically and emotionally plausible character.
Michael Kumnick’s set design is effectively grim and minimalist, evoking the claustrophobic horror of Soviet-era prisons, and makes good use of the Little Theatre’s upper level for the play’s short story sequences. Aaron Nash’s score, which fittingly combines the sinister and the childlike, is equally effective but I wanted to hear more of it (it was also played, on opening night at least, rather too quietly).
The Pillowman may be about any number of things: the ways in which individuals accept or deny accountability for their actions, the construction of fiction and the responsibilities of those who make it, the dubious immortality of the artist through their art and perhaps, even, the dangers of over-interpreting works of literature. McDonagh does not lay his cards on the table and in this sense, and others, The Pillowman is an exemplary post-modern text. At the same time as it employs genre clichés, it both acknowledges and mocks them. McDonagh always wants his audience to know that his play is, in the end, pure make-believe, just another tall tale in a world in which fact and fiction seem to be becoming harder to distinguish.
The Theatre Guild is to be commended for taking on this challenging play which will undoubtedly polarise audiences. I hope other local companies take note. Dansie’s conscientious direction and accomplished cast demonstrate that taking risks should be an integral part of theatre programming, whether in a professional or amateur context. This is an excellent production which I feel still has some room to grow before the season closes – no bad thing.
An edited version of this review appeared in dB Magazine, 19 October 2011.