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REVIEW: The Pillowman | New Theatre, Sydney

The world loved Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman. Our critic saw a new production at Sydney’s New Theatre and doesn’t quite understand why.

The cast of The Pillowman | New Theatre (Pic: Bob Seasry)

The Pillowman is an Irish play (or, at least, a play written by an Irishman), to be sure, to be sure, written in 2003, by Martin McDonagh. Mind you, it goes back quite a way before that, having enjoyed its first public reading at the Finborough Theatre, London, circa 1995.

I’m not sure the great unwashed would’ve enjoyed it quite so much as the critics seem to have done. And I’m not sure I did either, notwithstanding the fact I am a critic. Still, it’s hard to argue with. A 2004 Olivier for Best New Play. The Evening Standard Award for Best New Play. New York Drama Critics’ Circle for Best New Foreign Play. But still, I argue; even if and when numerous of my colleagues seem too intimidated to sink the slipper. Ben Brantley in The New York Times┬ácalled it a “spellbinding stunner”. I, on the other hand, found it frustrating, sleep-inducing and tedious. It lacks cadence and has all the hallmarks of youthful exuberance in search of skill, yet he’d written five plays before this. McDonagh has been quoted as having “respect for the whole history of films and a slight disrespect for theatre”. On this evidence, Martin, the feeling’s mutual.

For all this damnation, it’s not it’s without some merit, by way of occasional (perhaps accidental) pithiness and inasmuch as it serves to thoroughly ridicule bureaucracies of the pettiest and most pernicious kind. The danger is it risks ridiculing itself through a meandering, undisciplined wander through very dark woods, often deviating from the path; insofar as there is one. It spends way too much time self-indulgently mired in humour that barely rises above the inane and schoolboyish, going nowhere at all.

Given that debates are raging about the nature and extent of free speech here and elsewhere, it’s story of Katurian, a writer under investigation, living in a police state, seems as timely as ever, but the opportunity for interrogating the subject, if you will, beyond the perfunctory narrative involving the character, is ostensibly squandered.

Though performances are quite strong, their direction (by Luke Rogers) seems anything but surefooted, as the struggle to penetrate the play becomes all too visible. Dramaturg Julian Larnach has a load to bear here also. Not that I blame either. Rogers has a decent body of work behind (and no doubt in front of) him, as actor, producer and director. Again, he’s not the problem. The play is.

To begin with, Oliver Wenn, as Katurian, seems, much of the time, incongruously benign and laidback in the role, considering the invidious plight of his character. I suppose this is ironic licence, if you will, given the play’s apparent sole ambition as black comedy, but the fact is even this form needs a pervasive sense of menace to truly succeed. Similarly, Peter McAllum (as Tupolski, the officer-in-charge), and Jeremy Waters (as Ariel, his even more dim-witted, more gung-ho offsider), while presenting entertainingly buffoonish characters that inspire a certain sense of anxiety about the professionalism or lack thereof of our minders, reveal little, if anything, picking up a newspaper won’t. Reality is much scarier than this fiction.

Sure, there are funny lines: when McDonagh nails one (such as Tupolski explaining Ariel’s aggression with, “I’m the good cop, he’s the bad one”), it’s really good, but they don’t come often enough; more like stray bullets that hit the mark, while a barrage of ammunition just fills the play with holes. Michael Howlett, as Michal, Katurian’s much abused brother, slow to catch on as a result, has arguably more sense, or at least about as much, as all of ‘em put together. Yes, that’s the point. But it’s a heavy-handed one that murders surprise.

There are decent supporting performances from Lauren Dillon and Julian Dibley-Hall (so decent, their talents are belittled and squandered by McDonagh’s capricious and largely superfluous use of their characters) and Loren Elstein’s set design has a certain, stark Soviet confinement about it; Ross Graham’s glare of light providing the customary cop shop ambience.

All things considered, cast and crew have done their damnedest with what is to me, no matter how out of step my estimation, a crook play. Why choose it? Regrettably, this kind of dramatic anarchy seems to have some current cachet. I hope we all get over it soon. It would be a laudable aspiration if producers were to select plays for production on their intrinsic merits, rather than their extrinsic ones. We shouldn’t be impressed, necessarily, by preceding reputations. At least, that shouldn’t be adequate to the task of programming.

What McDonagh does show himself to be is a reasonably deft writer of tales after Grimm. I would’ve been just as happy, if not happier, to have had these excerpted and dramatised. I might’ve got out of the theatre after a merciful hour or so, rather than two hours and 40-odd minutes.

“The only duty of a storyteller is to tell a story,” the play repeatedly purports. If only it had taken its own advice rather more roundly. Instead, it takes a bloody long time to tell us nothing new.

The details: The Pillowman plays New Theatre until April 13. Tickets on the company website.

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