NEW THEATRE’S ‘THE PILLOWMAN’

Martin McDonagh is probably the master of black comedy for the stage. He beautifully weaves storytelling with highly emotional or socially dysfunctional characters, fantastical events, technical wizardry and all made to seem like the most normal of circumstances under crazy duress. Amongst it all, the text is brilliant and will do much of the work for you if you let it. In fact, you’d have to try very hard to not make his plays work on the stage. The New Theatre do make ‘The Pillowman’ work but in all honesty, something is missing.

In the spirit of fairness when I saw this show I was doped up on cold and flu tablets, not for the fun of it, I assure you- I was struck down with a cold but time pressures made me feel that keeping my date with the theatre was more important than a date with my bed and that I was well enough to do it justice. But I can declare that I have had better days so you can take what I say in whatever context you’d like.

To me director Luke Rogers has made a couple of slight misjudgements in realising McDonagh’s play. Firstly, it’s in the casting. Not for one moment do I believe Michal (Michael Howlett) is the older brother of our protagonist Katurian (Oliver Wenn) and maybe in real life, there is that age gap between them but on the stage it doesn’t read this way. You might question whether it matters but it is the relationship and history between them that drives younger brother Katurian to save intellectually-challenged older brother Michal by committing acts of violence to protect him. If the relationship seems incredulous, taking that journey is much, much harder and McDonagh’s plays rely on moments of believing what I call ‘truthful absurdity’ (or is that the flu tablet talking?). Compassionate brother Katurian acts out of character in his violence and we need to feel that relationship has integrity in order for us to go with it. 

The other thing that struck me as hindering the flow of the play’s material comes in what feels like a forced energy and rhythm. I imagine when the play is done in Irish accents the pace of the show runs at a speed conducive to the play’s needs. The Australian accents slow it down but are certainly preferable than bad Irish accents. The play felt like it clunked along at times and I’m presuming that may have been part of the problem. There’s also the danger of playing characters with extreme energy and it feels forced and finding the balance between the inquisitiveness of Michal contrasted to the violence he is also capable of committing in that guise is a tough line. If it feels like you’re ‘putting on an act’ I can’t believe the action. It’s tough- granted- but there were times I felt this was a hurdle too big to overcome in this production.

Loren Elstein’s design is quite good. I liked the use of the scrim and division of stage but I couldn’t quite go with the abusive parents in swimming costumes for the ‘Jesus story’.

Amongst that, there was plenty to enjoy too. Oliver Wenn was more than adequate as Katurian. When Wenn got to deliver Katurian’s stories, that was when we most took notice. He delivered them with real ownership and clarity. But it was Peter McAllum as Tupolski who was the definite standout of the show. His ability to show the control of Tupolski and tilt events always to his advantage was masterfully crafted.

This play was enjoyable but not outstanding. If you’ve never seen McDonagh’s work before then do pop along and immerse yourself in a great text. It’s still a cheap night out watching some pretty decent theatre.

POSTSCRIPT:

Thank you to all the people who pointed out my lack of research on the original play in that it is very specifically not written for an Irish voice and thus accent is irrelevant. Consider myself suitably chastised for the oversight on my part. Bad, bad girl. I was trying to account for the problems with rhythm and took a stab at what it might have been from my flu-like state but read some of the reader comments below who most likely account for it much better than I did. And seriously, thank you for writing them. I am not so precious that I can’t take criticism. I mean, wouldn’t that be ironic? 

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8 comments

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That Guy March 28, 2013 at 7:05 pm

One observation (having not seen the production) – you indicate Irish Accents. From my reading of "The Pillowman", it's the one McDonagh play that is deliberately not set anywhere at all in particular (although the character names like Katurian, Tupolski and Michal, together with the plot element of state-control over a writer, suggest Eastern Europe). And while McDonagh is an Irish writer and is best known for his five published plays that are set there, he has moved outside there since (both with the Pillowman and with the American-set "Behanding in Spokane").

I think "The Pillowman" is a fiendishly difficult script to get right for any group, with a lot of temptations and traps to fall into, and it seems like The New has fallen into a few of them with wobbly casting and some lack of light-and-shade in the interrogation scenes.

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jane March 29, 2013 at 3:38 am

Good point TG- I remember at the Abbey Theatre the discussion I had with management of how difficult they find getting successful Irish playwrights to write in the vernacular and keep plays in the national spirit or to premier them in Ireland at all.

You are most likely right about the accents and then I can only think the director Rogers has struggled to find the rhythm to dance with the language of the play.

It is decidedly more successful in the second half.

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Kiwikroozer March 29, 2013 at 1:22 pm

Thanks heaps for your review, Jane. I do hope that nasty bug has now released you from its grip!

A couple of minor points.
The decision NOT to use Irish accents had little to do with the actors' capabilities, but was, as That Guy said, more based on an acknowledgement that the play was deliberately non-specific as regards location. I, personally, will leap at any excuse to use an accent, and the previous play in which I was involved at the New (The Weir, by Conor McPherson) was, in fact, wall-to-wall Irish!
The original London West End production was, I believe, done with English accents, and the Broadway version was unapologetically American, so we pretty much went with the flow on that front.
Interestingly, McDonagh himself was born in London, to Irish parents who then moved back to Galway, leaving him and his brother to grow up in England. He did visit and even stay for a while in Ireland later on, and his early plays were located on (and just off) the Emerald Isle, but The Pillowman was regarded as his first NON-Irish script.

Thanks again. I do enjoy reading all your 'shit' and look forward to doing so long into the future.

Bestest
Peter McAllum

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ALW April 2, 2013 at 1:53 am

It's interesting that you note the presence of "putting on an act" acting as that was my main issue with the production. This was what I attribute the pacing problems to.

There were few moments where I believed Wenn as Katurian. And in the interrogation scenes, particularly the opening this directly affected the rhythm of the dialogue as his delivery did not ring true.
I will concede that there was a nice ownership of the tales in their retelling but little concept of their meaning, neither in general or to the writer himself. Wenn took some malicious delight in his words that was just innappropriate.
Either Wenn has not sufficiently done his homework to develop Katurian or he wasn't up to the task. It's a complicated role to tackle, but it is disappointing either way.

(And it certainly got on my nerves when a freshly tortured Katurian seemed able to completely forget the pain he was in when he had something else to talk about.)

I was sceptical about Michael Howlett and I still can't decide whether the vascillation between Michal's tone was an attribute to the question of Michal's awareness of his acts or an occasional slip in character.
Again I found the above faults the reason the relationship seemed lacking. Even though the age difference between Katurian and Michal was only a year I agree it holds a significance that the audience need to feel.

Lastly I'm with you on the abusive parents in swimming costumes.

I do think there are merits to this production and the text itself is wonderful. There's two weeks left and I would be encouraging a look-see.

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jane April 2, 2013 at 4:59 am

Peter- thanks for your comment and well done on your work on stage. I have been inundated with emails and comments to remind me of some poor research on my part in regards to the accents (in trying to decipher the problems with rhythm in the first half). I am going to use the flu tablet as my get out of jail free card. I'm hoping had I been sharper in my cognitive abilities, I would have kept my level of stupidity to a minimum!

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jane April 2, 2013 at 5:03 am

ALW- such insightful comments may mean I endow this blog to you when I am pushed down a flight of stairs by a passing hater. Spot on I think. Thank you for bringing an intelligence and substance in your comments to my original post.

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Anonymous April 4, 2013 at 9:36 pm

To be shaaw.. to be shaaw..

I think you guys (Jane, That guy, ALW)need to get a life… seriously!!

I thought Luke's interpretation was shabby chic smart and reflected his love of 'Grand Designs' and Kevin McLeods articulate references to the construction process. I thought Oliver and Michael did the roles justice indeed.. my only confusion revolved around the goat walking through the set mid way through the second act which threw me somewhat?!

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ALW April 5, 2013 at 11:30 pm

Thank you but not worthy of such lovely words. This is one of my favourite plays in the world, so I was always going to be overly critical.

And hope you are feeling better, especially now that the mercury decided to take a skydiving trip into rapid descent.

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