Review: The Pillowman

Johannes Lenhard 24 November 2012

The Pillowman

Cripps Auditorium, Magdalen, 7.30pm, until Sat 24th Nov

Katurian Katurian Katurian (Stephen Bermingham) is a writer of short stories that bear but one resemblance: they centre around a child’s death. He thinks that it is those stories that have brought him to the police station of the unnamed dictatorship in which the play is set. Two children have been murdered in most gruesome ways. A third one is missing. The detectives Tupolski (Freddy Sawyer) and Ariel (Adam Shuman) don’t even shy away from Katurian’s retarded brother Michael, convincingly played by Jamie Webb, to make Katurian confess. And confess is what he does – very subserviently – to save his stories. But only after he had learned that the murders were fashioned explicitly after his stories and only after another sacrifice.

“The duty of a storyteller is to tell a story.” It is the stories of Katurian that are the most compelling part of the play. In those moments, when Bermingham falls into the voice of a real storyteller, the audience shivers and forgets about the generally rather too lucid atmosphere in the auditorium. The stories of the ‘Writer and the Writer’s Brother’, of ‘Little Jesus’, the ‘Little Green Pig’ or the ‘Pillowman’ make the play worthwhile. Dark, sadistic and insane. Is this something human nature is able to imagine, let alone do?

Only after the interval, after the confession, the truth is brought forward in the person of the missing mute girl, by then dressed up as the little green pig from Katurian’s story. Katurian had lied about the murders. It was not him who had enacted his own stories. Even though relationships were forming between Katurian and both the brilliantly performed storyteller-to-be Tupolski and the slightly overdone (voice-wise in particular) Ariel, Katurian’s execution is inevitable. He dies not in vain, however: his stories are kept.

But what for? In the end the audience is alone with themselves – where are truth and fiction? How much fantasy is needed to act upon reality? Most importantly: Is it necessary to display such crudeness in theatre? Yes, it clearly is. The theatre is a form of art that as such literally ‘plays’ with human emotions and particularly with those that seem not part of the daily repertoire. Where else do we learn about abyss, horror or also wonder? To elucidate everyday life with unusualness has always been the task of fairytale, myth and saga. The Pillowman might be insane and brutal, but when the stuttering and moaning, when the screaming and suffering are as well done as in the second half of the piece, this insanity develops a genuinety that can teach us about ourselves. The daily news seems to tell enough about needless violence in Gaza, Darfur or Athens. However, the artistic cruelty is of a different kind. It is exaggerated, direct and haunting – and as such more subtly and insistently making us reflect than the news on television.

The audience will not have a fun evening out, but The Pillowman definitely makes one think – not least due to the overall nicely directed production.

Johannes Lenhard