THE PILLOWMAN AT ROBINSON THEATRE, HILLS ROAD VI FORM COLLEGE
This is a hard play to watch
It is unrelentingly dark - unforgiving in its detail of the tortures inflicted on the children within its story – yet it is billed as a comedy penned by one of the up-and-coming Writers of our Day. Martin McDonagh lionized in his native Ireland, wrote the Oscar-winning film ‘Three Billboards outside Ebbing Misouri. So contemporary and celebrated (Pillow Man won a Toni award when it was first on in 2003) yet you would have to go back to the bloody tragedies of Seneca in ancient Rome, a culture notoriously tolerant of suffering and death as entertainment - to find anything quite so graphic in the telling. In her upcoming Gifford lectures , Cambridge doyenne of the classical world Mary Beard will examine that very parallel with much more expertise but the fascination with cruelty is an on-going trope in the human psyche. The play is not overtly violent. There are a couple of on-stage grapplings but like Greek dramas it (mercifully) only tells us about ghastly goings - on we don’t see much. Even so the atrocities are reported in all too appalling detail. So where is the appeal ? How does this production ensnare its audience of free men and women, to stay through nearly three hours of action?
Tricky to crack that one. The play has a distinctly Kafkaesque feel. In an unknown country under an authoritarian rule, a young writer called Katurian K Katurian confronts a pair of unpredictably sinister policemen, one an urbane sophisticate Tupolski (played with superb nuance by Matt Wilkinson) and Ariel the absurdly- named disturbed bruiser as his off-sider ( Steve Nicholson sustains his manic menace with great restraint.) In between the alarming threats of assault, and Katurian’s vulnerability – there is humour and people did laugh. I was so paralyzed with foreboding it was hard to raise a ghost of a grin, but for a less anxious audience member the balance between terror and absurdity would probably have panned out less fearful and more fun.
Katurian’s crime is initially unclear. Will Males plays him as a diffident hip bloke, honest straightforward and understandably nervous of a threatening encounter where his interrogators do everything to unsettle him. Essentially Katurian is a storyteller and his chief concern is the protection of his stories , that they not be destroyed or defaced. Ironically they are the root of his trouble. In another room disturbingly enough for Katurian, the Police are keeping his autistic brother. The tenderness between the brothers is the beacon of hope in an otherwise cruel shadowy world. Mc Donagh confesses to a creative ambiguity in his writing ‘I walk that line between comedy and cruelty because I think one illuminates the other” . Michal the child-like older brother reveals the shocking reality of the stories Katurian creates. Their touchingly funny dialogue is steeped in the irony of Katurian’s knowledge of what a dire situation is really theirs. Will Norland brings a heart-warming quality to this tricky role even as he reveals some dreadful truths (or are they?)
The play is frankly too long. It is saved from being far too long to bear, by an inventive graphic sequence illuminated at the back of the stage designed to tell the ghastly story of the brothers’ early lives in cartoon-style. And whilst the stories clearly are the essence of the play’s meaning, they are rather over-long too – talented Mr. McDonagh does need an editor’s blue pencil around some of his text. The production was overall amazingly well done with music, set and lighting all combining to convince the audience the nightmare is real. Or to suggest it was quite surreal. Whichever, this is a disturbing play for an adult audience. It should perhaps carry the old caveat used by the BBC before some of its avant -garde dramas of the 1960s ‘ This performance is unsuitable for persons of a nervous disposition’. But for people of an adventurous attitude with a strong grip, it is certainly a stimulating evening in the theatre.
The Pillowman is at Robinson Theatre at Hills Road Sixth Form College, Cambridge until Saturday, May 4.In