The Pillowman (2003) Theatre Play Review

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Right…this will be a different kind of review, as this is my 1st review of a play.  It’s one that I recently saw at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast, and unlike other reviews that would be written by those who grew up on theatre and love it with a passion, I’ll be talking about it as someone whose story-diet metaphorically has movies as the 1st cup of coffee, TV shows as the 2nd cup of coffee, and theatre plays as the big, expensive sushi platter that you have from time to time, but never forget.  So…what can be said about a story that has been given the name The Pillowman?

The Pillowman is a play (and no it’s not a biography about Prince Randian) that was originally written (or at least conceived creatively) back in 1995 by Martin McDonagh, who, over the last few years has become one of my favourite writers and movie directors.  Why?  2 words; In Bruges.  Followed by 2 other words; Seven Psychopaths.  Followed by 5 words; Six Shooter, and The Guard (Yes, I came to know a playwright through cinema).  But it wasn’t until 2003 when the play itself was finally realised.  There is more than 1 reason why the play has this name.  You’ll notice 1, but also look for the other.

The play has a total of about 8 actors, 4 main and 4 minor.  Our 4 major players are 2 brothers and 2 detectives.  The brothers are Katurian and Michal.  2 men who had very different childhoods to each other, very different relationships with their parents, and are very different, or seemingly very different people to each other.  Katurian is the main character, and the younger brother, who has a career as a writer of short stories (and has written about 400 of them altogether).  Michal is the older brother, and is both mentally and socially a bit slow.  Both brothers live in a country that is also a totalitarian police state, and our story involves them being taken into police custody, where they are interrogated by our other main characters; Detective Tupolski (the good cop who is cold to interact with) and Detective Ariel (who is the Bud White of the duo).  The next question to ask is “Why were these 2 brothers arrested?” Well ‘Bobby, it’s based on circumstantial evidence in this instance…1st, this is where it gets dark; it involves Katurian’s stories.  Some of which are about children being violently abused and even killed…and for some reason, a series of murders involving small children in the real world are showing parallels and similarities to his stories.  But now here is where it get rather humourous.  The stories themselves are almost too dark, and are really over the top.  Making us, the audience, amused that something so horrible in fiction, somehow gets carried out in the real world.  Since I don’t plan on spoiling the show for those reading this (unless they want to spoil it for themselves), I’ll now break it down as much as I can.

Dialogue-wise, The Pillowman is in peak form, and definitely up there with Martin McDonagh’s best work.  It is 1 of the funniest and yet darkest stories you will ever witness.  To go along with the bleak scenario that the 2 brothers are in, we’re also presented with several of Katurian’s short stories, whether they’re being read out by the detectives, told like a father to a child from Katurian to Michal, or actually played out as a secondary play that is happening behind a seated Katurian in that “Are your sitting comfortably, children..?” presentation.  All that comes to mind is if Christopher Walken was ever given the role of Katurian…just how surreal the experience would become yet again.

The acting was also really good and enjoyed the use of contrasts between the major and minor characters.  The minor characters resorted to using the likes of mime and silent acting, while the major characters were much more dialogue-driven with highlights of physical violence and shouting matches.  Peter Campion (who played Katurian) showed a fantastic range while also playing what could be best described as the straightest man in the most surreal of scenarios and circumstances.  Michael Ford-Fitzgerald (Michal) was also excellent, and a part of me wondered if it hurts to sit on the hard floor like that for as long as he did.  David McSavage (Detective Tupolski) was great in Act 1, but even funnier in Act 3.  Especially when he started telling his own story (the 1 about the deaf chinese boy…a story so politically incorrect – – okay, it was hilariously well told), and it only really occurred to me today that I have seen Gary Lydon (Detective Ariel) in several films involving John Michael McDonagh (Martin’s brother) and Irish acting legend Brendan Gleeson (primarily The Guard and Calvary).  He was brilliant in this, and it intrigues me how his character changes, bit by bit, as more is revealed to justify his grumpy nature.

The music was very fitting.  Especially when you consider the context of both Katurian’s stories and reasons why Martin McDonagh wrote this play (such as how fairy tales like those by The Brothers Grimm were in fact really dark and grotesque).  It reminded me of dark fairy tales, and even films like Terry Gilliam’s Tideland.

The play itself had a fantastic presentation, with the circular interrogation room/prison cell reminding me of a castle tower where bad things happen, and comes across as slightly gothic, even if the actors look like they’re dressed in timeless, 1960s gear.  I also loved how the tower set splits in 2, to reveal a small stage behind it, as Katurian tells some of his stories.

Is there anything that I might have against this play?  No…with the small exception of 1 tiny little detail…it probably couldn’t be helped, and perhaps it’s my own hearing…the actors weren’t quite as loud as they could have been…that’s it.  Everything else about it was awesome.

Would I recommend this play?  If you’re Irish (North or South, it doesn’t matter) and old enough to love and appreciate a very dark and twisted sense of humour to the level of patriotism, then this play is perfect for you.  But if you’re from anywhere in the world at all, and your sense of humour is dark, twisted, politically incorrect and sarcastic already, then you too will probably love this play.  Lastly if you’re a small child and your parents brought you to see this play with initial plans of both sheltering you and introducing you to the theatre, may God help you.

Overall Rating: *****

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