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Photo by Alex Craig

The Pillowman

Company B presents THE PILLOWMAN by Martin McDonagh at the Belvoir Theatre, at the Upstairs Theatre, 4 June – 13 July, 2008

“The Pillowman” won the Lawrence Olivier Award for Best New Play after it was presented in London in 2003. It also was nominated for a Tony Award in 2005 in New York. On this outing I don’t think it will be similarly nominated in any such category in the Sydney Theatre Awards. The play is the same but clearly the production is not. This is the painful risk the playwright must take in the collaborative minefield of the Theatre.

This play is set in a Totalitarian State somewhere, sometime. When it was done in 2003 and in 2005 in London and New York with the recent shock of the World Trade Centre attack and the subsequent reaction of the Democracies of the World, waging a War on Terror through legal and “hidden “ means, this play had an urgency and relevancy. In Sydney in June of 2008 those facts and the added exposure of the Australian Shame for its care (abuse) of its children, whether it be in Indigenous Australia or in the suburbs of Brisbane, Adelaide or in the suburbs of our National Capital, Canberra, (The Sydney Morning Herald June 26, 2008 page 2.) this play should still pack a wallop. It doesn’t. In fact I found I was bemused and confused by this production. I had read the play and thought like the director it was terrific, exciting. And I mean TERRIFIC in the Elizabethan Sense: The hackles on the back of one’s neck stood up.

Based on the program notes the Director Craig Ilott, had had “no play“ that “had ever gripped or excited“ him in the way this one did when he read it. The opportunity to do this play, evidently, became a passion. Unfortunately the passion has become impassioned and the director has mistaken emotional confrontation and extremities as the right choices for what is happening in this text. The actors playing Katurian (Damon Herriman) and Michal (Steve Rodgers) in the long pivotal scene in the end of the first act have been directed to explosive emotional heat and reduce the action of the scene to sibling melodrama. But in reality, in a close reading of the text, in the language and the syntax, one can see a much more sophisticated intention. The text is a Comedy of the Grotesque. The images, juxtaposition of images and the surprise twists and turns of the differing realities, as new information is released in the sentence to sentence, sometimes phrase to phrase structure, give us a play that is at once horrific and shockingly funny. A kind of guilty comic relish of the attractive gleam of evil. It is much like the pleasure one had in the Anthony Hopkins original performance of Hannibal Lecter in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. No such accuracy of reading happens here. It is sentimental instead of cool and cruel. Confusingly emotional instead of forensically analytic. Bleeding heart instead of cool head. At the interval my theatre going partner and I were disappointed and confused.

The second half of the play is mostly a long interrogation by the two policeman Tupolski (Marton Csokas) and Ariel (Dan Wyllie) of the protagonist of the piece Katurian. Interestingly, the play came to life with a sense of the comedy of the grotesque. Marton Csokas instinctively and technically brilliantly uses his text to reveal character, story and the manipulation of language. He gives great pleasure and some sense of why this play has been lauded and the other works of McDonagh highly revered. And certainly the clues for the Director on what the writer is about are all in the previous plays and in Mr Csokas’s performance. This actor knows and reveres his writer, his director seems to be confused. (By the way, Marton Csokas, in my estimation, was the only jewel in the recent production of WHO’S AFARID OF VIRGINNIA WOOLF?, His integrity in honouring Albee’s text was the only thing that prevented the “Vandals” in completely obfuscating Albee’s great play.) Dan Wylie is supportive but has tacked on a physical characterisation that seems to be ultimately superfluous to his genuinely good instincts with the text. The “Story Telling Actors” Amanda Bishop, David Terry and Lauren Elton acquit themselves efficiently, as the writer asks, no more and no less than instructed.

The Set Design by Nicholas Dare is terrific, the Lighting (Niklas Pajanti) is what was necessary. The Sound (Jethro Woodward) just a little too obvious in its ominous use of drone. A mixed bag of experience.

This production may represent the reason Martin McDonagh has said that the theatre is over for him and why he is finding great pleasure in Writing and Directing for Film. If, IN BRUGES, recently screened at the Sydney Film Festival, is any reflection of his feelings then our cinematic pleasures have increased in promise and the theatre going public deprived of the possibility of the real experience of a challenging mind: LIVE!!!!!!


Playing now until July 13. Bookings through Belvoir Street Ticketing.

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