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The Pillowman: not a sleep aid

by | Nov 21, 2021 | Review | 0 comments

poster for the Untold Wants production of The Pillowman

You think your relationship with your siblings is complicated? Just wait for The Pillowman.

I wasn’t bored by this two-and-a-half-hour production, which is saying something. But I wasn’t horrified either — and I should have been.

In Martin McDonagh’s 2003 script, a writer named Katurian is being interrogated by “good cop” Tupolski and “bad cop” Ariel. Katurian has written several short stories that feature extreme violence against children, and two kids from the local town have been murdered in ways that Katurian described. A third child is missing.

Many see The Pillowman as playwright Martin McDonagh’s defence of free imagination: after all, censorious voices have criticized the darkness of McDonagh’s work (including the Leenane Trilogy and the Aran Islands Trilogy), and the apparently innocent writer in The Pillowman is targeted by the agents of a totalitarian regime. Even Tupolski the cop says, “The only duty of a storyteller is to tell a story.”

But that’s only half the equation. When Katurian’s brain-damaged brother Michal also becomes a suspect, the writer must face the possibility that he has influenced Michal. Morally, that would make him an accessory to his sibling’s crimes.

McDonagh is too savvy to deliver a final verdict on this question; he keeps his script pulsating by manipulating its thematic and narrative tensions. We hear several of Katurian’s stories, which, in their combination of stylized innocence and brutal content, feel like particularly grisly fairy tales. One of them sheds light on the horrific history that Katurian and Michal share, and they all contribute to the plot’s twists.

With references to Katurian’s work, including “The Little Jesus” — you know where that’s going — The Pillowman should have the charge of a horror story, but this production from Untold Wants Theatre Inc. doesn’t fully deliver on that remit. Although the main roles were all originally written for men, directors Jessica Aquila Cymerman and Éanna O’Dowd have chosen an all-female cast, Fair enough, but this company doesn’t find ways to access the traditionally masculine threat of physical intimidation, which is a major factor in the interrogation scenes. In general, the directors’ approach is overly light. Yes, The Pillowman is often comic, believe it or not, but, for the whole to work, the play also needs viscerally credible levels of threat and despair. Playing Michal, India Shaw-Smith offers the strongest performance of the evening, capturing the character’s disarming innocence. But, if Michal’s going to be a real suspect — and he needs to be — we’ve also got to see glimpses of him that make us want to throw up.

In saying this, I’m not dismissing the production. The Pillowman is a monster of a script in more ways than one: it’s a hugely ambitious project to take on. I applaud that ambition — and the notable level of success. The company rides the script’s dynamics with enough skill that the evening always demands attention. In this non-Equity company, all of the players —France Maurice as Katurian; Tanya Jade as Ariel; India Shaw-Smith as I’ve already mentioned, as Michal; and Brieanna McCutcheon, who does a particularly good job of straddling the gruesome and the comic, as Tupolski — do credible work. And the directors have added a clever touch: projected black-and-white illustrations of Krapinski’s stories that enhance the storybook feel.

Mostly what I got out of this evening is a renewed appreciation for the joy of yarn spinning. That’s a solid pay-off. I also wanted to feel more.

THE PILLOWMAN By Martin McDonagh. Directed by Jessica Aquila Cymerman and Éanna O’Dowd. Produced by Untold Wants Theatre Inc. and Brieanna McCutcheon At Performance Works on Saturday, November 20. Running until November 27. Tickets.


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