The Pillowman review: ‘fantastically effective’

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A dystopian, darkly comic, and psychologically disturbing play, with a plot centred around child murder, might seem something of an ambitious project for a student theatre company – yet Fourth Wall Theatre’s production of Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman falls nothing short of a triumph. Three acts of beautifully intimate dialogue were executed seamlessly, and an extraordinarily high level of talent, innovation, and commitment from everyone involved was evident throughout.

The play is set in a totalitarian state, wherein Katurian (Emma Howell), a short story writer, has been suspected of committing the murders of three children, due to their deaths’ similarity to deaths which occur in his stories. Katurian is brought in for questioning by the brutal police officers Tupolski and Ariel (Sarah Slimani and Annie Davison), as is Michal (Wilf Wort), the author’s mentally disabled brother. The back stories of all four characters are gradually laid bare, and this is largely effected through the retelling of the short stories. For Katurian, the stories are more important than life itself, and their significance was particularly apparent in this production, where a combination of innovative set, music, and lighting aided the telling of each tale, no doubt thanks to the talented technical team headed up by Tanya Agarwal and Tyler Rainford. There was one moment, however, during the telling of ‘The Little Green Pig’ tale, where a distinct whirring, presumably coming from the lighting equipment, was very loud, and distracted attention from Howell’s story-telling. This was, however, a minor flaw within an otherwise impeccable execution of highly sophisticated technical effects.

Right from the moment I entered the Assembly Rooms, I was intrigued by what the play had to offer: the curtains were already open as the audience walked in, revealing a single actor sitting deadly still at a desk, with a bag over her head, while thunderous sound effects played. This gripped the audience’s attention even before the performance had begun, and set the sinister tone which underpinned the entire play. It also allowed for a glorious contrast on the entrance of Tupolski and Ariel when the lights came up, who danced onto the stage to pop music. The production continued to deftly leap between the humorous and the horrific, achieving absolute hilarity in instances such as when Michal declared he had ‘an itchy arse’ with such frankness and wonderful physicality, only to, moments later, present us with the harsh reality of Katurian and Michal’s situation.

Clearly a great deal of thought had gone into set design, and set builder Henry Fell utilised the Assembly Rooms to its full potential, maximising the use of the long but narrow stage by reflecting the unpeeling of the characters’ identities through ‘unpeeling’ the set – as the plot developed, the gauze lifted, and the action moved upstage. A minimalist ‘office’ set at the front of the stage was used for the more naturalistic interrogation scenes, whilst a raised four poster structure further back lent itself to the stylised story-telling scenes. The entirety of Karturian’s dialogue with her brother took place enclosed by brightly coloured lights on the stage floor, representing cell walls, which drew attention to the intimacy and desperation of the action. Due to the emphasis placed on straight lines, the set had an angularity about it which reflected the cold nature of the totalitarian state in which the play is set, and made the vulnerability of the characters appear even starker.

Director Rohan Perumatantri made a bold decision in opting for gender-blind casting in a play written for four male actors, but it was a decision that I believe paid off, and an interesting power dynamic was created wherein the lowest-status character on stage was also the only male character. Wilf Wort and Annie Davison gave competent performances in their respective roles, Davison particularly coming into her own at the play’s culmination, where her character loses all previous sense of bravado, and displays her inner helplessness. Sarah Slimani commanded the stage with her understated sarcastic tone and excellent use of pause, although at times she was perhaps a little too understated, and was sometimes difficult to hear, particularly in the first act. However, this was partially due to the positioning of the chairs, which added to the angular nature of the set, but also meant that Slimani was forced to face upstage for the first section of her dialogue with Karturian, and volume and facial expression were lost. The truly exceptional performance of the night came from Emma Howell, whose stunning portrayal of Karturian danced from confusion to compassion to anger with an authenticity that carried the show and captivated the audience, making this production unforgettable.

Fourth Wall Theatre’s production of The Pillowman is a highly accomplished and ground-breaking piece of theatre, and nothing quite like it is likely to grace the Assembly Rooms any time soon. Perumatantri and his production team must be commended on seeing their creative vision through to fruition in such fantastically effective style.

Photograph: Alexander Gottlieb

‘The Pillowman’ will run until Sat 12th Mar in the Assembly Rooms Theatre. Book your tickets here.

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