The Pillowman First Night Review

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After the interval in this excellent production of The Pillowman (a grand-guignol style tale-telling spree steeped in Kafkaesque metafiction about the oeuvre of a writer whose theme is kids “getting fucked up”) a real live kid appears, barefoot, a girl called Beatrice King, very earnest, with a ski-jump nose. She carefully goes through the motions she’s rehearsed, which include for instance flinching and starting in time with the mimed blows aimed at her by the abusive foster parents, who are going about her crucifixion in the tale “The Little Jesus”. People sitting around you will go ‘aww’, as one does, it seems, for infants in performance.

It is screamingly detrimental to the play’s thus-far tonsil-turning tensions. I have no idea why, as a director, you would do this to yourself. Even ickle Bea’s grand final appearance (timidly daubed all over in green paint) isn’t worth it – though at that point it is vitally important, I presume, to convey the liveness of the untortured, miraculously happy little body. Ariel’s warmth (Jacob Lloyd) towards her is plausible and fairly touching, but apart from that there is nothing real or interesting about the interaction between the child-performer and the adult cast. Omkar betrays nervousness on-stage as he handles her; the context of cultish child protection wafts around the whole thing. Multimedia would have been useful here; or just a rag doll. Something you can really mutilate.

But this is my only real beef with Dan Wilner and Sabina Smitham’s production, with perhaps a murmur about Rory Fazan as a gifted, nuanced anti-hero who needed, however, on the first night at least, to polish some scene changes, articulate (or learn?) a number of lines, and remember not to drop character when a match refused to light. He gave a bitty performance, which, when beautiful, was so from tortured feet to accusatory lip (crumpling, yearningly so); when slipping up, it sapped a lot of the grotesquerie and horror’s energy. The shadow-play of the torture scene in ‘The Writer and the Writer’s Brother’ was also wasted, which was a shame. Yet vocal talent from the four actors carried the stories more than adequately, though the few strong physicalised moments (an embrace between the brothers in their cell; an eye-gouging assault from bad cop) called out for a generally less conservative, less static approach to the narrative.

The ‘Pillowman’ is the product of Katurian Katurian Katurian’s imagination (incidentally, I’m sure it’s not just Kafka but the KKK being referenced) – a dark relative of Peter Pan who helps children in the past to commit suicide, but only children whose adult futures hold in store depression, torture and… suicide. The fluffiness eases ones exit from “all the hassle” of living, a symbol sustained brilliantly by Wilner, who has orchestrated in echo the trope of pillows resting on sleeping bellies like cloud-babies or ectoplasm. (Before they’re seized from above to smother and annihilate breath.) The psychological toll of this profession pushes Pillowman to go back in time and snuff out his own, infant, self. The body of his work in future time is thus undone and hundreds of suicides have to thrash their miseries out as grown-ups.

Krishna Omkar’s acting is icily precise. One gets the terrifying feeling that this good-cop persona has been aired before on a Union carpet. He impressed relentlessly in the performance of camp uncanniness, having mastered a pretty 2-D kind of posh cruelty. But he moved me just once: in an egregiously inelegant and vulnerable moment he held the gaze of the condemned in the penultimate scene of the play, braved the silence, and admitted that he’d lost a son. “Drowned, out fishing alone. Silly, really”. ‘Really silly’ is the simple tack Lawrence Cochran has, commendably, adopted for Michal, rather than attempting to ape an inchoate madman or approximate a PTS sufferer. The effect is strikingly child-like, which creates unease at the moment when Ariel blurts in relief and comprehension: “but you never killed no children”. Killed no children, oh, has he not?

Under your mattress is your dead brother clutching a piece of writing better than any you’ve ever penned. You burn it. He was never tortured as a child anyway – that was all a trick, a series of sound-tracks designed to turn you into the genius you are today. And no again – THIS is the trick, the track, the rail-road you’re walking deaf in China, to use Tupolski’s improvised image from his strange tale. Maleficent, beneficent, or, more worryingly, uninterested – who, asks McDonagh maniacally, is this God governing the lives of so many beings raped and tortured? The policeman’s story is perhaps better than anything the prisoner ever wrote. In it, you’re walking oblivious in the path of a train, blind to the existence of the wise man in the tower ahead, who calculates the location of the collision and your death by processing relative speeds and so on; yawns, satisfied, and tosses the paper air-plane of his findings out of his window, without giving your death another thought. The paper sails towards you; you leap at it with pleasure and… escape danger. This, said Omkar, is the role of the detective. God, he had some good lines. McDonagh’s script is gold dust.

What is God? Everything points to the answer being weighted in favour of ‘the Pillowman’. Then the story of the Green Pig portrays a god willing to bring staining rain-showers down on everybody else, in response to one’s desire to remain differently hued and peculiar. The totalitarian dictatorship framing the action feels threadbare; like the play it is constructed on a series of lenses and paradigms, on the vindictive dischargement of deep-rooted trauma on the weak, the other, the mirror of the self, the object of paranoid envy. The social role of stories is scoured inside out, explicitly, and through all the fibres of this very un-Irish production of a play by an infamously un-Irish guy. An ego split is at the heart of every character here, not a national one as in McDonagh’s disgusted English Leenane trilogies, but a masculine one which Jacob Lloyd showed brilliantly in his simultaneous longing for and embarrassment over confessional. Then again, what you say is what goes, and the Law spouts “asinine nonsense” to bewilder and disorientate, at which Katurian beats never an eyelid.

The Pillowman is a perpetual and tricksy game of ‘this is true/untrue/true actually’ which culminates in charming, self-reflexive pathos (Fazan comes back from the dead to explain that the premature gun-shot prevented him from getting to the cynical twist of his mental ‘sequel’ in which his brother tells the Pillowman he’ll take seven years of torture for the sake of his, Katurian’s, poetic development.) Indeed the godliness of authorship, the freedom to write – or white out – death notices, identities, and entire childhoods was for me the main subject of this many-layered evening. Anybody creative will have been disturbed by the imagined complicity between teller and killer, brother and child. ‘In my story’, Katurian says to Mikhail, ‘you were the true author; I was merely the brother’. For the imbecile subjected to nightly torture that was itself a story motivated by a story competition, there can be no distinction between ‘you told me the story’ and ‘you told me to do it’.

And yet Michal lied about the stories he elected. 400 sick ones, but one ‘nice’ one about a non-pink pig. The shockingly happy dissolution of the third charge of child murder, the by-now wholly unfamiliar feeling of all-rightness, feels macabre, and the pastoral scene painted in our gore-weary imaginations of the wendy-houseful of piglets for the mute girl dyed bright green and undead becomes a testament to our thralldom to the storyteller. It seems not quite “in the spirit of the thing”, as the final monologue has it, that the lunatic brother should choose the innocent Green Pig story, and not the Jesus one, for his third reenactment. Before the “fashionably downbeat” interruption of the countdown to KKK’s much-deferred death, the one kind act towards a child in the entire show has occurred in ‘The Tale of the Town on the River’: here, the Pied Piper cuts off a boy’s toes with a meat cleaver. And this is a ‘gift’. The maiming means, we later learn, that he cannot hobble home to Hamlin to be piped away and killed – by the Pied Piper. “He was after the kids from the start, you see,” explains Katurian. “I never liked your stories,” says the cop.

 

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