The Pillowman

30 October 2008

Watching the Olympics this summer, it was hard not to lament the strict rules of the IOC. It was hard not to feel that these restrictions weren’t holding back Beijing from being an epic event.

Sure, there was drama; it was exciting, engaging and the athletes really gave it their all. The setting was grand and befitting of a magnificent tale and the authoritarian jack boot of China gave it that dark edge of adventure.

But, still, there was that nagging feeling that it could’ve all been better if they’d been allowed to take anabolic steroids, wear pogo-shoes, the javelin champion had javelined Usain Bolt and then written a rambling blog for the Guardian about his internal conflict over whether putting him out of his misery by braining Bolt with his javelin bronze afterwards really had been for the best. ‘The Pillowman’ at the ADC left me feeling much the same way.

Laurie Coldwell

Written by Martin McDonagh (In Bruges), Pillowman won the 2004 Laurence Olivier award. Telling the story of writer Katurian (Patrick Warner) as he is hauled in front of ‘good cop’ Tupolski (David Brown) and ‘bad cop’ Ariel (Tom Attenborough) in an unnamed authoritarian state, we assume that he has been hauled in because of the dissidence of his stories.

As it transpires he has been hauled in because his dark writing bears an uncanny resemblance to the disappearance and murder of three children and later that his mentally handicapped brother Michal (Jack Monaghan), to whom he read all his stories, is responsible.

It ticks all the boxes of high grade modern theatre. It’s sharply written. It’s dark and gruesome. It raises profound questions: can art corrupt and damage? Does it thrive on suffering? Is its survival more important than that of a human life?

Nevertheless, for all this, there’s a little hollow space that isn’t filled. The central moral dilemma is missing; Katurian has such belief in the sanctity of his work that he’ll do anything to save his stories. Without internal conflict, we have no drama. This holds what is otherwise a near impeccable production back.

It is more than watchable. Brown and Attenborough’s double act as the two cops is a lesson in comic timing, undermining and intimidation. Warner’s Katurian is gentle, idealistic, impassioned and intelligent. Monaghan’s Michal walks a tricky tightrope in having to play an abused young man whose level of disability the author seems to conveniently wax and wane to take as full advantage of him as he can, but Monaghan imbues him with enough charm and zest to break through this.

The cell scene between Katurian and Michal is so well balanced as to be fully emotionally enveloping; at turns both funny and tragic.

The staging in three levels, with the cell downstage, the interrogation mid-stage and Katurian’s twisted stories played out Grimm Brothers-esque in a gallery built to look like an opened book worked well to illuminate the play.

Polished and professional, director Abigail Rokison is let down by the play, rather than her cast, set or direction.

This production is good. Like the Olympics, you’ll be entertained, excited, surprised. You’ll likely as not, enjoy watching it. But whether it be ambiguous drugs or a moral dilemma over a glorified spear through a cocky sportsman, you’ll leave happy, but missing that little something.