The Pillowman / Good Time Theatrics

Review by Sandra Harman

Where is the line between Truth and Fairytale?

Martin McDonagh’s brutal absurdist – horror, The Pillowman was partly inspired by McDonagh’s attempt to rewrite fairy tales he remembered from childhood. He realized that “there was something dark about them that doesn’t quite come through”, and so penned this gruesomely funny piece about the dangerous power of literature, that brings forth the darkness in spades.

Katurian K Katurian (Sophie Wickes), a writer of numerous nasty short stories depicting the torture and murder of children, is in an interrogation room in an unnamed totalitarian dictatorship being questioned by ‘good cop’ / ‘bad cop’ team of Tupolski (Jordon Riley) and Ariel (Hannah Boyd) who want to know why a string of recent child murders seem to be re-enactments of these bizarre examples of storytelling. Katurian denies all allegations stating that although her stories are gruesome it is the job of a storyteller to tell a story. But when she discovers that her mentally disabled sister Michal (Grace Lofting) is in the next room and has confessed, via torture, to the murders, she resolves to accept being executed and will do anything to save her stories from destruction.

Do stories hold the power to cause horrific actions? One of the main themes of The Pillowman is about the importance of telling tales. Through narrations and re-enactments of several of Katurian’s stories by the ensemble (Brittany Hetherington, Jiordan Lobwein and Bella Schwarzenecker) we learn of the events that led to how Katurian developed her disturbed imagination, and the content of the tales that may have influenced the murders of three local children.

Directors Hannah Boyd and Sophie Wickes made the brave decision to use an all-female cast for this production. And although it did not always work to highlight the masculine brutality of this text, it certainly makes a statement.

The initial scene in the interrogation room with cops Tupolski and Ariel comes across as mostly comedic which means that it sometimes lacks the brutality the scene commanded. The Act 3 interrogation and denouement works better as both performers have less superficial and more emotionally varied material to work with. Riley and Boyd play these roles with conviction. Wickes’ work in both these scenes is consistent and engaging and mixes the masculine and feminine elements together quite successfully.

Act 2 between Wickes and Lofting as sisters Katurian and Michal is where the writing and the acting works exceptionally well. These two performers show a wonderful rapport, and are at their best here with the characters, in showing the relationship between the sisters, and in bringing out the comedy from such dark material. There is a childlike honesty in Lofting’s portrayal of the disabled sister that is totally endearing even as we listen to her blunt comments about the murders of the children. And Wickes balances the fine line between the frustration of managing a mentally disabled sister, and the wholehearted love she has for her.

The dark fairytales within this play which are either narrated or re-enacted by the actors and the
ensemble are all quite disturbing, highlighting the horror elements and the dangerous power of the
words “Once Upon a Time.” Some segments were more successful than others as the re-enactments, though well performed, occasionally detract from, rather than enhance the storytelling.

The production design by Ella Dickson using a sparse set with minimal pieces is effective, as is the lighting design by Livvy Wilson. The costuming, feautring the “1984” inspired style of jumpsuits (although bright pink) for Tupolski and Ariel juxtaposes with the more feminine outfits of Katurian and Michal and works well.

Overall, this is a fiercely well written play worth seeing, which explores a myriad of ideas about truth and responsibility, in which there is no absolution, no answers and no happy ending.

The Pillowman plays until 27 August at PIP Theatre in Milton. Tickets are on sale here.

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