Review: The Pillowman

ATG's production is a triumphant display of dark humour and raw emotion - not for the faint-hearted

Humour and heartache are brought to the fore in John Maier and Will Cowie’s interpretation of Martin McDonagh’s anguished tale of a writer whose only subject is child murder. When he and his brother are questioned about a series of killings, the play becomes slowly more sinister as real life begins to resemble fiction.

Lighting and music are used cleverly to create a disturbing atmosphere – the cheery soundtrack jars with the often harsh colours of red and blue, perhaps mirroring the juxtaposition of the protagonist Katurian’s happy childhood and the incessant torture faced by his brother Michal. The surfer music that plays over the opening scene, as Katurian waits blindfolded in police custody, informs us that this isn’t your usual dark drama.

Whilst the onstage action is captivating, it is the dramatisation of Katurian’s stories that really brings out the strengths in McDonagh’s script. Innovatively, the directors choose to tell two of the stories, ‘The Writer and the Writer’s Brother’ and ‘The Little Jesus’ using the medium of Eve Finnie’s incredibly detailed puppets, and a retro TV cartoon, respectively. Both stories are narrated in Lillian Bornstein’s smooth and indifferent tones, and provide the play with an additional, 1984-esque dimension which feels unique to this retelling.

Having previewed the play, and expecting a comedy, I was surprised to find drama and tension to be much more prevalent. Much of the comic relief comes from Christopher Page’s Michal and his failure to understand the seriousness of his situation. However, in the second half of the play, it would be difficult to isolate a single moment which could be found universally funny – perhaps a little tweaking in the actors’ delivery could have remedied this. The play is certainly not for the faint-hearted – most of the play’s humour comes from threats of torture or violence and making light of a bad situation.

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It is clear that the actors fit their roles perfectly – Lillian Bornstein shines as Katurian, deftly conveying the nuances of his character, from his love for Michal to his possessiveness over his stories. At times the delivery may appear overenthusiastic, but this is balanced beautifully by the scene where Katurian kills Michal out of mercy. Despite not a single word being said, the emotions are crystal clear. Christopher Page is a complete scene-stealer as Michal, with most of the play’s comic highlights and the perfect mix of naivety and childish impudence. He does a fine job of making Michal seem guiltless despite the horrifying murders he has committed.

The duo of Ariel and Tupolski, played by Christian Amos and Joseph Stephenson respectively, seem to be our source of comedy from the outset. Tupolski uses sarcastic questioning, Ariel violence –  despite his insistence that he’s “the good cop” and Tupolski the bad one. Amos and Stephenson play off one another beautifully, but it is in the second half that they come into their own as individuals. Amos is captivating as Ariel, holding back tears as he is revealed to have been a victim of paternal rape, as is Stephenson, confronting the death of his character’s son. Perhaps most astonishing is that the actors’ chemistry with one another is so natural, regardless of which combination of them we see onstage.

Cowie and Maier follow the script’s twists and turns expertly in their direction, so that when a change of direction arrives, it arrives forcefully and without warning. The most obvious example is in one of the final scenes as Michal is revealed to have enacted the story of ‘The Little Green Pig’ on the third child instead of ‘The Little Jesus,’ which is too gruesome even to mention. Expecting a horrifying retelling of the child’s murder, we instead find a cheery little mute girl covered with green paint. The performance pushes this humour to the limit, bringing out the child and having her wave happily to the audience.

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My only criticism would be in the handling of the final scene – when Katurian is shot. The immediate removal of his blindfold as he stands up again to deliver his own epilogue feels somewhat clumsy. Perhaps instead employing a lighting change and slowing the pace would have eased the transition. Michal’s response to Katurian’s words, his shadow visible on a white cloth which hangs behind the stage, however, is undeniably original, and provides the bittersweet finality which the audience craves, as well as epitomising the near-perfect fraternal relationship the two share.

All in all, this retelling of The Pillowman is a triumph on all fronts – with a fantastic cast, clear direction and a minimalist set, the intensity of The Pilch adds to the claustrophobic atmosphere. Although it seems to be neither tragedy nor comedy, the focus here is solely on the raw emotion – and you leave the studio with it having seeped deep into your bones.