By Ollie Nelmes
Cuth’s Drama Society’s production of The Pillowman achieves a fantastically sinister and dark atmosphere. Performed in the Durham Union Debating Chamber, the cast and crew are tasked with an intimate space which they make use of to full effect. With the walls of the chamber covered in mad childlike scrawlings, the limited stage space becomes a claustrophobic space of nightmares. Despite the crew having a limited lighting setup with the venue not being geared towards dramatic performance, they still manage to achieve a suitably tense scene which captures the pressures of an interrogation.
The direction of Rachel Tan and Lauren Gardner sustains a consistent dark severity which plays well with the emotionally poignant and shockingly visceral moments of the play. Despite this hardness, there is a good sense of dark comedy and gallows humour which is well realised making it a production which offers so much. Furthermore, it is a testament to the impressive energy of the cast throughout the performance that enables the dynamism between moments of comedy and the deeply disturbing instances of the play without feeling forced.
The central performance of Katurian, played by Alexander Cohen, achieves a neurotic skittishness which is played to full comic effect. As the play progresses he captures a deeper emotional state which is at the very centre of the pathos of the play. The portrayal of Cohen’s mentally disabled brother Michal, played by Joe Pape, brings a naivety and a different comedy that stands apart from the witty repartee between Cohen and the detectives. Pape well executes the role in his comic timing whilst also being able to deploy dramatic revelations with a weight that demonstrates a superb versatility.
Pitted against the performance of Cohen are the two detectives Ariel and Tupolski, played by Matthew Redmond and Isabel McGrady respectively. Redmond brings an excellent physical presence as the confrontational bully, although shows his most impressive acting clout in his moments of quiet vulnerability which he shows in the second act. In contrast to this fantastically aggressive performance, McGrady offers a slightly more poised and balanced performance which plays well against Redmond’s sheer energy. McGrady’s performance demonstrates an appropriate nuance as it progresses and reveals insecurities and concerns suitable to the play’s moral ambiguities.
Appearing in more background roles are the characters of Mother (Hatty Tagart) and Father (Cameron Ashplant). Although having limited dialogue, they both demonstrate a great enthusiasm and work well as a comic backdrop to the main players. Also of note is the performance of Isobel Flower as Girl who without any dialogue provides an amusing, albeit silent, depiction of ‘Little Jesus’ who’s audience interactions brings a welcome reprieve from the harsh tragedy.
The negotiation of tone in a challenging play was highly impressive as moments of hilarity easily moved to a deeper moral examination. It moved so well between the two states that it was a thoroughly entertaining play to watch, whilst it still felt like it carried a dramatic depth that managed to leave a lasting impression.
Photo by Alex McNab