With dark stories within dark stories, Martin McDonagh’s, Olivier Award winning “The Pillowman,” might well begin with once upon a time, but no one gets to live happily ever after. Especially the innocent and the childlike. Fictional constructs might get passed off as truths, but truth might prove to be the greatest fiction of them all. If it’s all just a little bit peculiar in McDonagh’s fairy tale nightmare, where Kafka meets Orwell, meets the Brothers Grimm, it’s all disturbingly familiar. Darkly humorous and deliciously deranged, McDonagh’s ideas may lose the run of themselves in places, but his rich, acerbic humour always wins through in this brave, ingenious and thought provoking production.
In a circular cell resembling the remnants of Rapunzel’s tower, storyteller Katurian is interrogated by the good cop, bad cop, dynamic duo of Tupolski and Ariel. His only crime appears to be the writing of 400 stories, most of which feature children being wounded, maimed or killed. Stories such as The Tale of Little Jesus or the one about The Pillowman, seen as potentially damning evidence when several young children are murdered. In the cell, next door, Katurian’s somewhat simple minded brother, Michal, is being interrogated also. With torture being the preferred interrogation technique, followed by confession and immediate execution, a man is apt to say and do anything. Yet life and those living it are not as important as the stories one tells, of themselves and to themselves. Indeed, stories are both the living and the legacy, all that we are and all that we might hopefully leave behind.
If McDonagh’s mad, bad bedtime stories are steeped in an abundance of references, director Andrew Flynn recognises “The Pillowman’s” rich intertextuality and allows it freedom to play. Orientalism, bogeymen, political repression and authorial intent, to name but a few, all get their moments. If the tone of “The Pillowman” is uneven in places as a result, which McDonagh’s frequent over-elaborations doesn’t particularly help, Flynn rightfully trusts the humour to pull it all together. Owen MacCartháigh’s clever set design and Carl Kennedy’s excellent sound design go a long way to complementing this, evoking the fairy tale, dark heart underscoring McDonagh’s delightfully demented script.
Diarmuid Noyes as Katurian brings a thoughtful Kafkaesque quality to the writer who knows more than he’s saying and less than he thinks. As does Owen Sharpe as the brother whose keeper is kept in the dark. Peter Gowen as the gun wielding, wannabe writer Tupolski, and Gary Lydon as the secretly soft, hard man, cop critic Ariel, are both compelling. Jarlath Tivnan, Kate Murray, Peter Shine, Tara Finn and Rosa Makela round out the cast as “The Pillowman’s” story actors, playing the weird and wonderful characters in some of Katurian’s resonant stories, overstated tales where Crackanory meets Jackanory to wonderful effect.
If most of “The Pillowman’s” tales have demonic twists in the tail, where invariably it’s the innocent who suffer, there’s also the 400-to-1 story of The Little Green Pig. A twisted, ugly duckling tale about a brave, little beast that dares and delights in being different. One who doesn’t take too well to being made to fit into the norm, or to being judged by it. A fitting description, in many respects, of McDonagh’s political and personal “The Pillowman,” whose humour, innovation and daring to be different are wonderful realised in a production where hope can seep in, against all the odds, through the barest of cracks.
“The Pillowman” by Martin McDonagh, produced by Decadent Theatre Company, runs at the Gaiety Theatre until February 5th
For more information, visit The Gaiety Theatre