that would be a happy ending

23/03/2013 at 11:29 am Leave a comment

The Pillowman.
New Theatre, March 2013.

A must see for theatre writers – The Pillowman is a modern horror classic in the vein of – actually we’re stumped here – Frankenstein? Nosferatu? Accidental Death of An Anarchist? The Trial? Stephen King’s IT? None of them quite match. There are even shades of Havelian absurdity but Martin McDonagh is a true original, weaving together something akin to a Grimm’s Faery Tale of courage and imagination. This is true horror in that what is not said, what is not seen is so much more brutal than what we do. It’s such a fine line between revulsion in black comedy and the production does not mess around, delivering a tight back and forth of shock and laughter counterpointed with some meta-text that is both chilling and provocative.

Outside time, without extension* the world of the play switches like a light between the dank cells of an unnamed police state and some of the more depraved paths of the human imagination and storytelling we’ve taken. Immediately there are comparisons with public debates on hot-button issues such as police brutality, censorship and media regulation, and the always popular right-to-silence / free-speech double whammy. Context. Think that’s enough for one play? Just wait. You will be challenged on your beliefs on these subjects by curtain. The ensemble delivering on all fronts to suspend all kinds of disbelief while also balancing the kind of audience dislocation necessary for the material to work.

This is not a play for the faint-hearted. There are child-assault triggers and explicit language that will shock. But not in the way you expect. The beauty of the words here demonstrate the power of literature in performance that three little words, followed by silence and a look between two men can destroy even the staunchest of audience. Totally absorbing, this is what we look for in a play, to challenge and suggest alternative realities, to provoke the heart and mind and soul. Another quality production from the team at the New. Recommended.

*with apologies to Beckett

THE PILLOWMAN by Martin McDonagh, directed by Luke Rogers. Featuring Julian Dibley-Hall, Lauren Dillon, Michael Howlett, Peter McAllum, Jeremy Waters, Oliver Wenn.
At The New Theatre until April 13.


It’s worth unpacking what we mean by “Havelian Absurdism” in this context, referring to the late Czech writer Václav Havel, also known as the first president of the Czech Republic, and as a political dissident in Czechoslovakia post-1968. There is nothing specific in the text to place the work against that of Havel’s (anymore than Kafka or Fo) but a nagging sense of the not-quite-supernatural and of course, Havel’s personal history of political imprisonment as a writer. Perhaps it’s McDonagh’s nod to the notorious playwright’s ongoing encounter with the heavy-handed Communist Bloc regime, making the central character “Katurian Katurian” something of a Vaněk everyman-figure (the characters have names like Tupolski and Michal so the Eastern European flavour is hard to miss). Havel’s plays were banned and he suffered imprisonment by the secret police, which is an approximation of the plot here, where a writer is beaten and eventually murdered for what? Dangerous writing? The police almost let him off the hook for the murders. But the real threat, as Katurian sees it is the loss of his writing – of which censorship would be a threat not just to him, but to civilisation as we know it.

On an unrelated matter there is a film currently banned in Australia called “I Want Your Love”. So let’s not pretend this is something that doesn’t impact our everyday lives – whether you want to see the film or not, the very notion of taking away an individual or group’s right to self-expression is real, and happening today, in Australia (we have yet to move onto Capital Punishment for political expression but give it six months or so). As such it’s quite a striking bit of contrast, simultaneously dislocating the action into a para-political social context and making it close-to-home. The portrayal of Katurian and his brother as fairly ordinary folk, people like you would know, your neighbour, or brother’s friend who’s a writer, just trying to make a graft from a tough situation. Peter McAllum’s Detective Tupolski could be straight out of a Robert Barrett book (or for that matter The Wire), the familiarity becomes eerie especially in contrast to the magical quality of the tales-within-tales. But it has to be set somewhere else, somewhere far away for the allegory to work, because only when we take away the right to free expression does the vitality and importance of literature come into play.

Like many of Katurian’s stories – it’s a paradox. While you’re thinking about that, join Sydney PEN , an organisation dedicated to protecting the universal human right of reading and expression. Writers all over the world are being imprisoned for political content. Without putting too fine a point on it, this is very much a First World Problem too.

Entry filed under: Inside Theatre REVIEWS, Sydney THEATRE. Tags: , , , , , , , , .


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