Preview: The Pillowman

Jeevan Ravindran relishes the brutal comedy of ATG's production of The Pillowman

A writer puts pen to paper only to churn out stories of little children being horribly murdered. We soon discover that he has a very troubled backstory, a tortured and traumatised brother, with murder accusations hanging over both their heads. However, insist directors, John Maier and Will Cowie, this is a comedy.

Initially, I have difficulty believing this, and as the rehearsal begins, I am mesmerised more by fear and a gnawing curiosity than by the side-splitting humour of it all. Katurian (played by Lillian Bornstein) is both narrator and performer, with intriguing re-enactments of his stories interposed between the action. As the lights come up in the opening scene, he sits blindfolded, alone onstage, and is subsequently interrogated by police officers Tupolski and Ariel (played by Joseph Stephenson and Christian Amos), who meet his impassioned claims of innocence with a mix of apathy, amusement and anger. In fact, the entirety of Martin McDonagh’s script toys with the juxtaposition of brutality and comedy.

To enact one of the stories, a vast white covering, part wall, part screen is transformed, as Eve Finnie’s remarkably designed puppets play out Katurian’s words. Suddenly the directors’ vision comes alive as a story both real and imagined plays out before us. Much as the writer describes his parents conducting an “artistic experiment,” it is obvious that the play itself is an artistic experiment, toying with the play’s earthy and sinister misanthropy. It is clear that Cowie and Maier have read and interpreted the play sensitively, choosing to see it as a statement on society. Gender-blind casting and the innovative storytelling methods only add to this.

The intimate setting of The Michael Pilch Theatre breathes a new life into this adaptation. The audience, on the same level as the actors, have a close insight into the minds of the characters, whose intense exchanges are claustrophobic in their proximity. The directors seem keen to assure those who might have seen the 2014 Playhouse adaptation that this is quite different – the minimalist nature of their production has forced them to delve deeper into the play and create something entirely original. Yet, seeing the play in action, it’s almost impossible to imagine the production on any scale other than this.

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It is difficult to deny the talents of this small cast of four – Lillian Bornstein’s Katurian is at once forceful and pitiful, playing beautifully opposite the comic duo of Stephenson and Amos; the pair bring out the play’s boldest humour, whilst having fun at Katurian’s expense – torturing him, then politely asking him to take a seat. His brother Michal (Chris Page) is childish and naïve, failing to understand the gravity of his situation, bemoaning an itchy posterior, and shaking his head confusedly at Katurian’s complex intellectual musings.

Talking to the cast afterwards, they assure me they’ve had fun preparing for the play, despite its dark themes. Cowie and Maier say they were looking for eminently capable comic actors in casting, and that the nuances of Martin McDonagh’s bathetic and anticlimactic humour are often easy to miss.

It’s clear that there’s much more to expect than what we’ve seen – a story told through animation, retro TVs, and realistic fight-scenes choreographed by movement coach, Pete Sayer, as well as much more humour. “We want people to leave crying, but crying with laughter,” Maier concludes. “But maybe every one in three tears should be emotional,” chips in Cowie.

Whether funny or emotional, with its turbulent mix of totalitarian horror and quirky humour, don’t put head to pillow this week without seeing The Pillowman.

The Pillowman runs in 8th week at The Pilch Studio, (30th of November- 3rd of December).