The Brothers Grim
I must admit that I had some trepidation as I entered the theatre. The first act was supposed to be an hour and 45 minutes with another hour to go after the interval. Would the play be able to sustain my interest over nearly three hours? Let me say that it did that and more, much more. Irish playwright Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman is now going down as one of my all-time favourite scripts for its imagination, intelligence and daring, rivaling in power and intensity, another favourite of mine, Peter Shaffer's Equus, and director Tracie Pang and her cast and crew managed to bring me so completely into the play's dark and twisted world that I left the theatre that night buzzing from the experience. Even now, I still vividly remember images and moments from the play, as if I were caught in the web of a dream I have not fully awakened from.
A nightmare would be a better description, of course: The Pillowman opens with Katurian (Daniel Jenkins), a writer of irreverent fairytales with extremely dark and violent narratives, being interrogated in an unspecified (but I'm guessing European from the script's diction) totalitarian state by two police officers, Detective Tupolski (Adrian Pang) and Officer Ariel (Shane Mardjuki). We find out that Katurian is being accused of horrific crimes, all of which are retreads of gruesome acts detailed in Katurian's stories. So as not to spoil the play for readers who have yet to see the play, I shall give away little else except to say that the play, at one point, also introduces Katurian's mentally challenged brother, Michael (Michael Corbidge) and that, through the recounts of events from different perspectives and the narration of a few of Katurian's fairytales, it plays with our ideas of fact and fiction, guilt and innocence right until the very end.
There are many themes in the play for audiences to wrestle with. Abstract concepts of guilt and blame are explored - for example, can any of us really take responsibility for our actions when we are shaped by our environment and upbringing? Katurian's insistence that his stories must be preserved, no matter what the police do to him, also speaks powerfully about the relationships between artists and their work and the destructive power of censorship. Meanwhile, the director writes in the programme about the power and impact of narratives - what are the consequences of the stories we tell? Should you believe everything you read or are told? - and also questions whether Katurian's stories are really so perverted, considering that at the root of every traditional fairytale are acts of violence or cruelty: how, then, do we define what is acceptable behaviour for civil society?
If I seem to be glossing over these themes quickly, it is because while they are clearly present in the work and they certainly gnaw at your brain as you watch the play, I do not feel they are the true source of the play's power. The writer, while happy to introduce them, doesn't necessarily seem interested in dwelling too deeply into these complex themes. A quote from an interview with the playwright that is captured in the programme, reveals his true purpose: "Story is everything - story and a bit of attitude"; and that McDonagh certainly delivers in spades. The narrative is compelling, well-paced and unfurled with deft skill, the characters are all rich and full realized and, best of all, woven into the tale are a pervasive sense of danger and thick cords of extremely uncomfortable but equally irresistible black humour that deeply enrich the experience of watching the play. You are squirming in your seat, not wanting to watch any more but, at the same time, you are enjoying yourself so much, even laughing out loud, in this case, at the sharp wit which undergirds the writing, that the last thing you are thinking of is turning away: this perverse pleasure is the mark of any truly inspired work of horror.
The play is well-served by a director who knows when to employ theatrical spectacle and when to step back and let the power of the words and actors take centre stage. In the scenes where Katurian is narrating his fairytales, she complements him sometimes with a small ensemble cast playing out the scenes and other times, with the projection of specially rendered comic book panels that illustrate key moments in the stories. Both are equally effective because of how they add to the tone and central ideas of the play. Continuing to blur the lines between fact and fiction, between what is beautiful and what is grotesque, the scenes acted out by Andy Tear, Susan Tordoff and Alecia Chua are particularly disturbing because of the cool, plastic detachment that Tear and Tordoff display as they indulge in various acts of cruelty. With their perfect clothes and the almost-robotic precision of their unison movement and speech, they are like a Killer-Ken-and-Barbie. Similarly, the mostly black and white comic book panels by Alien, Flaky & Friends Animation Studios which are projected onto the walls, play with our expectations. The simple cartoons make you think of children's art and the innocence of childhood but the haunting images are anything but kid-friendly: a geyser of red erupts from a wrist slashed by a razor blade, a child is sent flying in an explosion of blood after being hit by a car, a grinning Pillowman - a cuddly figure made out entirely of pillows, cushions and buttons - is the harbinger of death. This Gothic-lite style of comic book art has found mainstream popularity with teenagers - you can find it on t-shirts and school bags - but I had not seen it used like this in a play before and the unexpected infusion of this evocative art form was just another surprise in a series of many that watching the play offered me.
It was not only Pang's imagination and creative vision that impressed me, however, but also her careful attention to the fundamentals of her craft. The execution of the play was clean and sharp, there was a good rhythm to the way the play unfolded, she mined the opportunities in the script (I loved the dramatic irony and mischievousness of having Adrian Pang's character mockingly pretend to be a Chinese man in one of the stories he narrates) and, most importantly, she drew out possibly career-best performances from actors who had already turned in a series of great performances over the years.
Katurian's role is a difficult one to play because of the depths of emotions that the actor has to plumb. This is a man who is not only being accused of some truly horrendous crimes against humanity but is facing a likely death sentence if found guilty. This is a man who is in deep desperation and anguish, not only for himself but also for his brother who is slowly being drawn into the investigation. Jenkins manages to internalize all these feelings and present the character with such conviction and authenticity that we have no difficulty following him along his rollercoaster of emotions as the situation Katurian finds himself in constantly shifts like sand beneath his feet; I completely invested in the character. Where Jenkins positively mesmerizes though is when he is narrating Katurian's fairytales, whether it is to the police officers or directly to the audience. His presence is so commanding and alluring, it is impossible to focus your attention on anything other than the story. It is as if he not only tells the story but inhabits it. Though, of course, Jenkins the actor is always fully aware of his audience, there are times when you'd expect him to pause for dramatic effect to milk a moment more but he steamrolls on against our expectations; this has the intriguing effect of making the actor seem as if he is too caught up in the story, too much a part of its fabric to worry about something as extrinsic as the audience.
Adrian Pang as the wisecracking police detective is an absolute delight. Detective Tupolski always knows exactly what to say and when to say it to manipulate his over-enthusiastic junior colleague and their prisoner and to provoke the desired reaction from them, and Pang plays the part with the palpable glee of a puppet-master fully in control. He makes full use of his sparkling stage charisma, nimble body movements, over-the-top facial expressions and impeccable sense of timing here but also proves capable of holding his own when things take a darker turn. In these scenes, he can switch with great force, suddenly becoming a truly intimidating presence capable of sudden explosions of violence or else he quietly but effectively simmers with hidden secrets.
Corbidge has the most showy role of the three, playing Michael, and he performs the part with absolute commitment, right down to transforming the way he holds his body and face, and also careful nuance so that he does not slip into lazy caricature. What makes the role particularly difficult is that the character of Michael is oddly lucid and insightful, even sarcastic, at times, despite being apparently mentally retarded (I personally feel this inconsistency was indirectly addressed in the play but my companion did not agree). You are, therefore, never completely sure just how aware the character is of what he has done or is doing. I feel that ambiguity is vital to the success of the character and Corbidge nails it. I also especially liked the chemistry that Jenkins and Corbidge share. The two actors were remarkable together as friends in Lonely Planet and they show here that they can convince as brothers as well. It is truly heartbreaking when Katurian lovingly tells Michael his favourite story to help him go to sleep, despite everything that has happened or will happen between them.
The only weak link in the cast was Shane Mardjuki. He wasn't
bad per se and I know he received a glowing review from the reviewer
of a local paper but I personally felt he was trying much too hard to
play his bad cop character with the required cool and danger. Unfortunately,
there is nothing less cool or dangerous than someone trying to be cool
and dangerous. This unbalanced the interrogation scenes: Jenkins and
Pang were strong and grounded but Mardjuki was flitting about on stage,
almost distractingly so, all excessive tics and insistent finger pointing.
If I had a criticism of the director, it would have been in her casting
and direction of the fidgety Mardjukie who is a competent actor -
he certainly had the required conviction and gravitas in his later scenes
- but was perhaps an odd choice for the role in the first place.
Fact and fiction, innocence and guilt collide in this dark, perverse and utterly compelling tale about a writer who is accused of a series of horrific crimes. His adult fairytales which serve as the backbone of the play, are brought to life by some truly haunting multimedia work and a tour de force lead performance by Daniel Jenkins. Adrian Pang and Michael Corbidge are not to be outdone: they, too, turn in perhaps the finest, most electrifying and vibrantly alive work of their careers. The script by Martin McDonagh explodes with imagination, black humour and razor-sharp wit: you will find yourself laughing (uncomfortably) even while listening to gruesome stories about dismemberment, torture and murder. It's that sort of play: you have been warned. An absolutely unmissable psychological thriller: a running time of close to three hours and I was captivated for every minute of it.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /