Sunday, May 19, 2024

The Pillowman – a playwright asks where responsibility rests for inciting harm (Prime Cut and Lyric Theatre until 15 June)

Two brothers find themselves in police custody. While Michal (David Murphy) is soon confessing under duress to a number of very serious crimes, his one-year younger sibling, barefoot Katurian, is still unsure why he and his life’s work of 400 short stories are sitting in a cell. But living in a totalitarian state, he knows it’s not good news.

Keith Singleton is a gifted storyteller, and brilliantly cast as Katurian in Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman. Showing visible signs of agitation and clearly nervous of the two police interrogators, when Katurian is asked to read out one of his stories to Tupolski and Ariel, the author becomes consumed by the tale and soon the characters have been given voices as if he was telling a bedtime story to his brother. The transformation is beautiful.

While Ariel (Steven Calvert) is quick to anger and uses violence to get quick results, Tupolski (Abigail McGibbon) is also quietly brutal with her approach. By the end of the play, their personas have neatly almost swapped. McGibbon is particularly well-suited to the role of senior detective – both police were originally written as male – who reveals her character to be delightfully passive aggressive and the queen of understatement.

The first scenes take place in Ciarán Bagnall’s shallow custody set, a dark stone bunker where the only colour comes from the vivid green police uniform. While many of Katurian’s stories are relayed orally, some are acted out, and much of the set lifts to open up the stage for the appearance of the brothers’ parents (Rosie McClelland and Jude Quinn with exquisitely synchronised movenents), ‘Little Jesus’ and another character vital to the climax (played brilliantly by a stomping and skipping Amelia Skillen and a bubbly and confidently signing Erin Barry).

The Pillowman is brought to you by the number ‘2’. Two brothers, two police detectives, two custody cells. The duality extends to the seven years of good treatment followed by the seven years of torture: almost biblical in its structure. Yet while all this might be expected to engender a simple sense of binary good and evil, McDonagh’s play is awash with greyness where nothing and no one can be easily pinned down.

The playwright didn’t constrain himself to a single, overriding idea when writing The Pillowman. He looks at assisted dying, and puts the toe into totalitarian, free speech state censorship, police brutality … subjects which all still have contemporary resonance 21 years after the play’s first production. At times the dialogue is shocking and disrespectful: profoundly racist and ableist language is deliberately included, both to highlight how closed societies ‘other’ anyone who shows distinctive appearance or behaviour, and also to challenge the audience, some of whom begin to realise that they’re guffawing at quite inappropriate humour while the rest of us are quietly judging.

McDonagh’s chunky script looms large – and long – on the stage. At times it’s hard to listen to Katurian without feeling like you’re hearing McDonagh doing the talking. There’s a lot of thinking about legacy – “it’s about what you leave behind … they’re not going to kill my stories” – and whether the enduring written word is more important than relationships and human interaction.

But the enduring theme explores the responsibility of authors and playwrights. Journalists often talk about the responsibility of telling other people’s stories with authenticity, forethought and a duty of care towards any vulnerability or likely backlash. Katurian asserts that “the first – or only – duty of a storyteller is to tell a story”. But is that true? Or enough? Does imagination need to be tempered by responsibility not to incite violence or cause harm? Can fiction – knowingly or unwittingly – become future fact? Can art be divorced from reality given that reality so often influences and inspires the creation of the art?

Brothers Grimm had nothing on the dark and brutal storytelling of McDonagh. Chopping off a finger as an act of thran stubbornness is mild when compared with the vivid imagination behind The Pillowman, replete with stories about abusive adults and children meeting violent ends. Nine years after seeing Decadent Theatre Company’s production in the Lyric Theatre, I still find the titular story that’s related before the interval incredibly upsetting, a tale about a creature who travels back in time to confront children about the traumatic lives they will go on to lead, and then comfort them with an alternative ending. The concept is morally elegant, but the final twist in this short story racks up the pain.

Emma Jordan’s masterful direction richly mines the dark material, takes total control of the mood (aided by Carl Kennedy’s sinister sound design), and lifts the actors’ performances to fully convey this troubling tale.

The play explains that years of childhood torture have had an effect on Michal’s development. On stage, Michal veers between demonstrating poor insight, reduced ability to process complex information and emotional distress, to suddenly showing an almost savant ability to critique Katurian’s behaviour and weaknesses. Having avoided giving Michal any obvious mannerisms or stereotypical ticks, and not having cast an actor with a visible or declared learning disability, the character of Michal is perhaps the least well defined of the otherwise assured production.

Press night included a show stop before the interval due to an audience member’s ill health. The cast and crew restarted the scene very smoothly after an early extended interval, quite a technical and performative achievement.

The Pillowman is a Lyric Theatre and Prime Cut co-production that runs until 15 June. With strong themes throughout and an age advisory of 16+, if you’ve experience of a young death in your family circle, the play may be quite upsetting.

Photo credit: Melissa Gordon

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