first night

The Pillowman

Katie O'Toole reviews Fourth Wall Theatre's staging of Martin McDonagh's blackly comic masterpiece.


Fourth Wall’s interpretation of The Pillowman, by Martin McDonagh, was delightfully controversial; breaking a handful of societal taboos in three humorous acts. Along with the masterstroke, which was the lighting and sound choices, the play provided two and a half hours of hypnotic entertainment.

The play is based around the protagonist Katurian, an author who writes a series of disturbing short stories, involving a sequence of inhuman acts implemented against children. Katurian is arrested for the barbaric murders of several children and interrogated by two detectives; the quickly aggravated and irascible Ariel and the unsettlingly poised and sardonic Tupolski. Katurian’s ‘slow’ older brother, Michal, is also detained and accused by the police for a playing a part in the sinister homicides. As the play progresses, the deeply psychological layers begin to unfold, exposing the perversities hidden in the human unconscious and the pitiful vulnerability of mankind. Likewise, this play is a fascinating investigation into the psyche of children, conveying the ultimate ease in which they are naively manipulated by external influences. Thus, what fundamentally shapes this discordant play, is its resonating truth. It is impossible to observe the play with a black and white perception; ‘The Pillowman’ has to be elucidated with a spectrum of shades.

Overall, the acting standard was solid. Sarah Slimani shone in her performance as the calculating and witty detective Tupolski. Without having to raise her voice, she immediately captivated the audience with her authoritative demeanour, cynical humour and disconcertingly ambivalent attitude. Her comic timing was perfect; particular favourites of mine were her punchlines involving Katurian’s name and her father’s tragic alcoholism. The detail in her acting was especially admirable; Slimani’s constant sniffing and puckering of her lips added to her character’s detached temperament. Her moment of tenderness in the final act was particularly poignant, portraying Tupolski’s softer side and thus, her multi-faceted personality.

Wilf Wort’s performance of Michal, Katurian’s mentally disabled older brother, was truly commendable. He managed to perfectly balance Michal’s naivety and innocence against the insidious gravity of the play. His acting was sweetly horrifying, obtaining the audience’s empathy, disgust and pity all at once, thus, morphing the dark play into a traumatic experience for all those watching it.

Although evidently a strong and well rounded actress, I felt Annie Davison was slightly miscast as Ariel. This is not a criticism of her acting, which was consistently strong, but more a critique of her suitability for the role. It was undeniably a challenge to realistically portray Ariel’s aggressively thuggish and hostile persona, however, I wasn’t convinced by Davison’s depiction of it. That being said, once the veneers in Ariel’s tough ‘act’ began to diminish in the third act, Davison’s portrayal of her character’s compassionate side was beautiful, provoking genuine emotion and warmth in me.

My reception of Emma Howell’s portrayal of Katurian was mixed. Her comic timing should be praised, along with the disconcerting obsession with her short stories. Additionally, there were moments when her desperation and adoration of her brother were palpable. Despite this, I felt that the emotional weight of her character was not fully conveyed, as occasionally her facial expressions didn’t manage to fully encapsulate the intensity of her speech. As a general note, she needs to project more as occasionally her lines were lost.

Nonetheless, immense credit must be granted to the technical directors, Tanya Agarwal and Tyler Rainford, for the breath-taking and mesmerising spectacle that was the lighting. It immediately propelled the play onto a professional level, creating a tantalising experience for the audience. Nikhil Vyas must also be commended for the sound design, which heightened the sense of drama and generated a fittingly disturbing aura. Additionally, as the play was highly complex and must have required meticulous organisation, Nicki Orrell and the rest of the production team must be praised for their part in putting the show together.

Finally, Rohan Perumatantri displayed a colossal amount of creative directorial genius. Quite frankly he was a magician, conjuring Katurian’s sinister stories to life and bewitching the audience with the imaginative aesthetics of his vision. My favourite parts were undoubtedly the projection of shadows during the first story, the clouds, the neon green pigs and the hauntingly life-like puppet.

It is very rare in life to pay so little for such a commendable piece of theatre. Therefore, if you enjoy dark humour, a gripping story line and want to witness a visual treat, then I ask, nay implore you, to watch ‘The Pillowman’.

11 March 2016

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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