The Pillowman – Gaiety Theatre – Review by Paddy McGovern
until 5 February 2017
Decadent Theatre Company’s production of Martin McDonagh’s play, The Pillowman, has all the hallmarks of McDonagh’s work. There is humour in abundance – broad and black and breaking through in the least amusing situations imaginable. There is seriousness too, McDonagh seeming to share Patrick Kavanagh’s idea of tragedy as merely underdeveloped comedy. There are several big themes contending for our attention – power and its abuse, the importance of language, of writing and ideas and the value of the outsider to the good of society. There is pathos, tenderness and brutality. Predictably with this playwright, the structure is not linear or conventionally coherent. We veer from truth to make-believe, from the probable to the possible to the highly improbable – which may well end up being the truth. Just as we accept one version of events as being likely we are forced to revise that judgment. In the end, however, the play has its own skewed coherence and makes its points. Fairy tale, legend and biblical episodes are referenced, usually with social or political relevance to the ‘real’ world; occasionally it is just for humour.
At the centre of the narrative is Katurian (Diarmuid Noyes), a writer of short stories, his simple-minded brother Michal (Owen Sharpe) and their nemeses, the policemen Tupolski (Peter Gowen) and Ariel (Gary Lydon). All four give strong performances. Noyes is particularly affecting as the protective brother, a writer wholly committed to the enduring value of writing and a belief that what matters in the world is the word, the story. The secret police might better be described as secretive police, as layer after layer of character and back-story are revealed. Some of their distasteful attitudes and bullying behaviour stem from dark deeds in their own personal lives. There are stories within stories, like an elaborate game of Russian dolls. As Michal, Sharpe carries off the challenging part of the young, simple-minded boy, although some of his language – even a passing reference to Shakespeare – seems unlikely for someone with that level of intellectual disability. But then, of course, we are deep into McDonagh country where such things are presented as quite normal.
As stories are told in real time, the stage splits, horizontally or vertically – occasionally both – allowing the “story actors”, Jarlath Tivnan, Kate Murray, Peter Shine, Tara Finn and Rose Makela to re-enact the scene from the realm of fiction or fantasy being narrated in the ‘real’ world. Set designer Owen Mac Cárthaigh and scenic artist Ger Sweeney’s collaboration is stunningly effective in allowing the complex narratives to unfold simultaneously and smoothly, while sound design by Carl Kennedy and Ciaran Bagnall’s lighting design set enhance the action without ever drawing attention to themselves. Andrew Flynn’s direction succeeds in fusing the disparate scenes, moods and realms of reality into an engrossing and always entertaining evening’s theatre. The show continues at the Gaiety until 5th February.