25 May 2007

The Pillowman

The Pillowman
Melbourne Theatre Company
25 May 2007
Merlyn Theatre, CUB Malthouse


The Australian premiere of Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman is already dividing audiences. There are those who stay and those who leave. It’s an ingenious, highly original, dark, complex and intriguing story. Sadly it’s hidden in an over-written, over-complicated script, and buried in an under-directed and sometimes tedious production.

I was initially worried when FOH staff warned me that it’s three hours long (warned in a “get a drink while you can” way, rather than – “you are going to love this” way). 15 people left during Act One (and they didn’t wait for suitable breaks) and I counted nearly 100 abandoned seats after interval (not including the many rows behind me).

Katurian K Katurian, a writer, is arrested and interrogated because his short stories are almost identical to recent murders of children. We meet the good cop, the bad cop, Katurian’s retarded brother, Michael, and Katurian’s stories. This is unique and original writing.

The Pillowman won the New York Drama Critics' Circle Awards Best Foreign Play 2004-2005 and the 2004 Olivier Award for Best Play. It’s a brave and excellent choice for the Melbourne Theatre Company, but people kept filing out of the theatre.

Katurian says, “The duty of a story teller is to tell a story”. Act One initially seems too caught up in telling his stories, rather than telling us his story. I found it over-written, with dialogue that was too repetitive, often obvious and relied far too much on the exposition of the characters narrating the stories. However, I’m sure if I read the script, I would have loved it.

This production isn’t translating this script well. The style is a combination of The Bill, Law and Order, 1984 and an early Lynch film. Take all the good bits and edit them together. Unfortunately the result isn’t symbiotic.

There are some delightfully disturbingly, dark and astonishing moments (it really is worth hanging around for the opening of Act Two). McDonough says he starts in a dark place and goes even darker, but that the darkness is balanced by the comedy. The comedy is what is failing in this Pillowman. The script is as dark as a black cat on the dark side of the moon after the sun has exploded and disappeared. It needs the balance of the comedy. The over-written dialogue, the unimaginable acts, the racism and the mocking of the “spastic” are meant to be funny. But when it isn’t coming across as funny, all that is left is the disturbing.

The grey design is highlighted in shades of grey. Grey isn’t dark - grey is bland and dull. The direction reflects the design. The few props are so obvious that you know they will become integral to the action, which lessens their impact when they do. Act One is begging for pace and tension. This is the half that sent the audience away. They didn’t seem offended at the content, they just seemed bored. And they missed the much, much better Act Two.

Dan Wyllie as Michael is superb, among a generally excellent cast. Joel Edgerton is engaging as Katurian, but was missing the fear and anger that drives his character’s actions. Torture, the threat of imminent death and the revealing of the most heinous results of your own actions – this results in more than a bit miffed and worried.

People leaving the theatre indicates that there is something seriously wrong with a production. The Pillowman could be astonishing, but needs some very serious tough love and some brave directorial re-thinks. Please don’t blame the audience for not understanding the vision. We understood it, we just didn’t like how it was done.

This review originally appeared on AussieTheatre.com.

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