The Pillowman (Shock Therapy Productions)
Brisbane Powerhouse, Visy Theatre
August 19 – 29
“The first duty of storyteller is to tell a story,” the audience is told early on in “The Pillowman”. It is an important line, delivered as part of a writer’s interrogation by totalitarian state police about the gruesome content of his short stories which often depict violence against children, and their similarities to a number of local child murders. More than just defense of his innocence, however, it is a statement that encapsulates the essence of the show, which layers stories within stories from every character.
As contrast to the harsh reality of Katurian’s police interrogation while his brother Michal waits in the next room, his simply told fables are re-enacted and retold to the audience by characters stepping outside the action for delivery through monologue narration and shown through clever use of shadowplay and even puppetry that belie their horror. Indeed, there is a magic to the puppetry thanks primarily to the masterful efforts of puppeteer Anna Straker.
Ben Warren brings a sympathetic portrayal to the impatient and arrogant protagonist Katurian, whose collection of unpublished short pieces of fiction shock the police and audience members, but not his disabled brother. Barely off stage, Warren gives a first-class performance to take audiences on a roller coaster ride of emotions as backstory is revealed. Tama Matheson, meanwhile, has the difficult task of playing Michal, the naïve, gullible and vulnerable brother who is slow to get things following years of abuse. With his shuffling gate, jutted jaw, dangling lip and often-agape mouth, he conveys an essential social ignorance in every aspect of his performance, eyes always darting away from contact. And although his mannerisms reflect a realism, the character’s language allows the audience disconnection enough to discourage discomfort in their laughter. The relationship conveyed between the childlike Michal and his brother Katurian is a real highlight, reflecting the intimacy that must exist in a fraternal relationship in which one sibling assumes a pseudo-parental role.
As the good(ish) cop/bad cop duo of policeman and detective, Hayden Jones and Sam Foster provide immediate and enduring humour through their razor-sharp dialogue. Foster, in particular shows an assuredness on stage that adds much to the menace of the short-tempered, explosive, violent and vindictive Ariel, providing many of the show’s early darkly humourous moments, for as a comedy, Irish playwright Martin McDonagh’s “The Pillowman” is as black as they come; its laughs are of the type to be quickly followed by covered mouths and guilty looks around others in the audience of co-conspirators to appreciation of its delicious darkness
The show is long and even though you could easily walk away from the 90 minute first half entirely satisfied, the second instalment delivers a difficult to anticipate but quite satisfying ending as its intertwined intricacies are revealed amongst the twists and turns of its dark plot and uncomfortable imagery. Without doubt, Shock Therapy Productions has chosen an extremely complex and difficult choice of work in “The Pillowman”, but it is one that is delivered with extreme quality in every regard.
“The Pillowman” (which, it turns out is not such an elusive title after all) has much to offer, the narrative intricacies of which shouldn’t be spoiled in review beyond giving warning about its dark and disturbing content and description and portrayal of violence, a theme that often emerges in theatrical consideration of the darker side of human behaviours. Shock Therapy should be commended for resisting urge to ridicule its subject matter and, rather, being brave enough to show the audience the not so digestible aspects of violence that are, unfortunately, very much part of human experience. Although it may sometimes be at the expense of viewer comfort, the show’s central focus on storytelling shows just how gripping a well-told narrative can be. The addition of puppetry, physical theatre and shadow play in fusion, only serve to add to the appeal of this ingeniously disturbing show.