REVIEW: The Pillowman

 

Brisbane Powerhouse & Shock Therapy Productions

Brisbane Powerhouse Visy Theatre|  August 19 – 29 2015

Reviewed by Xanthe Coward

 

The first duty of a storyteller is to tell a story.

EDIT: SPOILER ALERT! Sorry, I never do this, but it was brought to my attention that I’ve totally told you here what happens by the end of the play. Come back after you’ve found out for yourself! Trust me, there’s no question whether or not you should see the show. IT’S GOOD. BOOK HERE

 

Brisbane has seen The Pillowman before. In 2009 23rd Productions staged an apparently stellar production at Metro Arts with Michelle Miall in the director’s chair. Reading through the cast and creatives certainly gives the impression that this was a first rate show. In October we’ll see the ambitious UQ student group tackle Martin McDonagh’s macabre piece for the Australian Festival of Student Theatre at La Boite; theirs is a remount of a production staged earlier this year at the Schonell.

McDonagh’s witty, grisly comedies trigger all sorts of feelings, but none more so than discomfort, the extreme kind, which makes you squirm and shrink in your seat. The playwright’s dark characters remind us that humans are more capable than we think of committing horrific and appalling acts against their own kind.

In The Pillowman, a writer’s strange and shocking Brothers Grimm style stories provide the pretext for a series of real life crimes against children, each warped fable a precursor to violent murder, and each case more gruesome than the last; copycat crimes inspired by the sickening detail in Katurian’s tales.

It’s not the writer, Katurian, who’s committed the crimes though (or is it? Why even write about such miserable, disturbing stuff?! We have to hope the creative process has been cathartic!), but as we discover, it’s his brother, Michal, abused for several years by the parents to the point of brain damage. He’s beyond repair and reproach. We’re challenged to consider art, science, parenting, power, censorship and citizenship in one foul swoop.

Hot tip: stop by Bar Alto before the show and grab a drink. The first act is a 90-minute commitment!

It’s a typically stark white set in the intimate confines of the Visy Theatre (Design Sam Foster & Luke Wrencher, Lighting Design Geoff Squires), the basement of an unknown government building in an unnamed totalitarian state, empty of implements and other distractions but containing all the conventions of an interrogation room – bright white light hanging above a table, a couple of chairs, a filing cabinet and a wastepaper basket. Silhouettes, masked actors, and then later a paper bag puppet all help to illustrate less pleasant moments of the past replayed in a simple narrative style, thanks largely to the love – seriously, she is all love – and vocal and physical finesse of Anna Straker (you might know her from her exceptional work with Dead Puppet Society). The voodoo doll paper puppet takes the pin and a real little person somewhere is dealt the pain.

A less competent director couldn’t integrate these additional elements so seamlessly into the storytelling but Foster creates a world in which reality and fantasy blur and become wickedly intoxicating…

Wait. How can we even have empathy for a child killer?!

Katurian K. Katurian reveals the horror of his brother’s childhood, and the complex decisiveness he feels in ending it. Think Betty Blue. And then think whether or not you’d do the same…in fact, how could you not? In this role Ben Warren wins our sympathy, and in the ultimate act of compassion brings to life “The Pillowman” of the title. As his brother, Michal, Tama Matheson earns both our compassion and revulsion. His carefully considered realisation of Michal is insightful, sympathetic and sinister. His facial contortions and frequent twitches demand physical precision, muscle memory and stamina, and his patience in the role means we sit uncomfortably in real time while he processes what is said to him and considers the situation, which is serious, but which might allow him the last little sleep he’s likely to get for a while. It’s the lightning-fast quips and oddities that make this character, and I can’t think of a more accomplished performer for this challenging role. His are the real heartache moments.

As good cop/bad cop duo, Hayden Jones (Tupolski) and Sam Foster (Ariel) are black comedy gold. Their complete lack of compassion and careless retorts, insensitive jokes and quick tempered false starts are all hilarious and completely appropriate given the roles they are playing. The repartee is sharp, fast, well punctuated and precise. The Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of horror comedy, their physical and verbal brutality combined creates a frightening and intimidating double act. And despite ample warning about the way the play will end it comes as a shock. The surprise is genuine, not least because of the tight writing, but also because these guys get suspense and storytelling.

Of course by its nature black comedy incites the sort of laughter you don’t want to be caught out not trying to contain. We feel dreadful laughing but laugh we must, or cry and give up on humanity altogether (and our own tawdry attempts at life). “Naturally bleak but naturally funny”, says McDonagh of his work. Director, Sam Foster, says it’s a new absurd approach to theatre and I say this production nails it.

Foster directed the original production on the Gold Coast and recast it, adding himself to the mix for this Brisbane Powerhouse season, Shock Therapy’s Brisbane debut. He tells me after the show on opening night that everything they need is already there, in the text. As Mamet preaches, “Everything that you need to communicate is in the text.” But it takes an astute director and bold actors to bring the text to life.

This is a dynamic company who have been around for a while and now seek to have the same impact on mainstage audiences as they do on their school audiences. (Sound familiar?!).

The Pillowman will surprise, delight and devastate you, leaving you wanting more, much more, from Shock Therapy Productions.