Martin McDonagh’s black comedy ‘The Pillowman’ saw the directorial debut of Mermaids regular Miles Hurley. It was the story of Katurian, a fiction writer living in a totalitarian state, brought in for interrogation about the gruesome content of his short stories and their similarities to a number of graphic child murders occurring in his town.
The opening pre-set of the show gave an idea of the 3-hour narrative that was to come; a red wash illuminating the Barron and Katurian sat at a desk with a bag on his head. This wash, compliments of Technician Grace Cowie, had a number of highly effective uses throughout the play, framing the land of Katurian’s twisted tales in ominous lighting. The threat and ambiguity from the hooded figure ignited the audience’s morbid curiosity, readily welcomed by the tone of ‘The Pillowman’.
The back wall must also be mentioned. A4 pages of childish drawings were all stuck together to cover the back wall, each drawing slightly perturbing in the manner that only a child would depict. It created an aesthetically impressive backdrop for the play, centred on child brutality, ever present in the background. Yet on the opening night, the wall fell. Page by page the pictures unstuck from the wall and scraped down, flopping over upon itself, still attached.
And, yet, it worked.
Somehow the collapse of the set seemed to fit in with the pace of the play; whenever there was a moment of tension or a silence that was when the wall would fall as if it were intended as perhaps a reflection of Katurian’s world. A perk of live theatre.
The actors themselves were of a very high standard. Self-proclaimed good cop/bad cop duo Tupolski (Bailey Fear) and Ariel (Jacek Donnell) really brought the humour to the dark comedy of ‘The Pillowman’. The pair and Katurian (Sebastian Allum) bounced well off each other, creating a beautiful blend of confusion, anger, and comic timing. It was perhaps unclear how old Tupolski was intended to be, with lines in the script giving him the gravitas and authority of an older man, and whilst Fear established his dominance over the other two it was more of a youthful challenge. This had its benefits though as Fear’s energy really pulled through the heavier dialogue and kept humour in what could be more turgid with an older presence.
Hurley’s casting choice of the man with the most mellifluous voice in St Andrews to play a storyteller was a gift to the audience. Allum delivered a nuanced performance, from the bumbling endearment of his initial interaction with the detectives to his anger and desperation around his brother Michal (Adam Spencer), a relationship the pair portrayed comfortably. Spencer had a difficult job in Michal, a sufferer of child abuse that left him mentally stunted; getting the balance between committing to the part and leaving enough distance to view the part with objective sensitivity is a challenge for which Spencer’s attempt should be commended.
The show was sold out with people being turned away at the door, although a couple of members of the audience departed at the interval due to discomfort with the nature of the play. While the programmes did feature a content warning, more advanced notice could have allowed the seats to be taken by those more aware of the play’s content.
Overall ‘The Pillowman’ seems to have left an impact on every person who went to see it. Hurley’s direction shone through in the consistent delivery of comic timing, the surreal red-lit story re-enactments and, most importantly, in not overpowering McDonagh’s very intelligent script.