first night

The Pillowman

Rian Doran takes a look at Castle Theatre Company's production of Martin McDonagh's award-winning 'The Pillowman' in the Assembly Rooms...

Director Hugo Soul refuses to write any “artistic tosh et cetera” in the programme, and he certainly doesn’t deliver any in CTC’s production of The Pillowman playing at the Assembly Rooms this week. Soul has stripped the play down to its core: atmosphere, emotion and very black humour. 

The use of simple stage-craft, lighting and music is used to great effect in all aspects of the production. Rory Watts skillfully combines haunting melodic motifs with a bass that quite literally resonates in your gut, and Ella Parry-Davies’ gauze effectively keeps the audience uneasy of what may be concealed. The shrewd decision to project the final monologue imbues the end of the play with a startling poignancy: the implicit humanity of Katurian’s voice and slowly resolving face is impressed on the audience against the image of his corpse and the menace of the flaming bin. While this simplicity gave the production a visceral rawness, it also, somewhat paradoxically, represents its greatest short-coming. McDonagh’s writing is, with no exaggeration, divine torture – effortlessly switching from tragedy to bathos and violence to tenderness. During the depiction of Katurian’s gruesome stories, the production elements manage to create a wash of uneasiness but are ultimately unable to achieve this tragi-comic limbo. The majority of this difficulty was due to the limits of the Assembly Rooms stage but, nevertheless, the production could have benefited from a more ambitious and imaginative staging.              

Ben Salter’s performance as officer Tupolski is superbly executed; tempering cruelty and menace with pathos and theatricality in equal measure. He demonstrates a mature understanding of the character and is able to exploit the ironies of McDonagh’s dialogue with the slightest inflection of his voice. Michael Shaw gets the balance of Michal’s lucid mischief and innocence just right. His subtle speech impediment and understated physical idiosyncrasies were both funny and affecting, but it would have been nice to see both Shaw and Soul push the limits of this characterization a little further. The character of the second officer, Ariel, is another of the plays more difficult roles. His ridiculous sadism belies a vulnerability that requires a greater than superficial characterization which Patrick Neyman does not, unfortunately, fully achieve. I admit that I had very high expectations of Ben Starr and while his Katurian had all the hallmarks of drama and realism he lacked real conviction. At the opening of the play, Katurian is sat in a cell blindfolded and, most likely, terrified. Yet, Starr’s Katurian is disconcertingly self-assured. His assertiveness zaps Tupolski’s sardonic ironies and detracts from his otherwise admirable stoicism leading up to his execution. Neither does Starr convey the ghastly gravitas of his decision to kill his brother at the end of Act I, although both Shaw and Starr come some way to suggesting the profundity of each brother’s devotion. Both Starr and Neyman warmed considerably during the performance and my lasting impression of the ensemble is, notwithstanding the above, an extremely strong one.     

Castle Theatre Company cannot be commended highly enough for their choice of plays this year. Closer and The Pillowman are, undoubtedly, two of very best of the last few decades. More than any other theatre company, CTC continues to lead the way for engaging, unostentatious drama in Durham.

Despite having read and seen the play many times, I nevertheless found Soul’s production both deeply affecting and disturbing. Don’t let the snow stop you from seeing this admirable production of one of the finest modern plays – it’s without doubt one of the year’s best. On the way to the theatre I slipped over on the ice. It was well-worth the bruise.

15 February 2009

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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