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The Pillowman


Singapore Repertory Theatre


Amos Toh






DBS Arts Centre



A Puzzle With No Solution

The Pillowman, as its deliberately misleading blurb would have it, charts storyteller Katurian's harrowing experience with the police of an unknown totalitarian state after the latter imprisons and interrogates him about his terrifying short stories. Established in a vaguely sadomasochistic setting and laced with political innuendo, the initial scenes lead us - "us" referring especially to seasoned theatregoers, academics, critics or anyone else inclined to detect reams of subtexts and hidden meanings - to believe that it is a wicked little satire on police brutality and Big Brotherism.

In Martin McDonagh's unsettling and exhilarating psychological thriller, there are touches of slapstick and farce, shades of Dostoyevsky, Kafka, Beckett and Scheherazade. One could also argue that it is a subtle examination of political fear, the sources and effects of fiction, or an artist's relationship with his work. However, such deconstruction fails to grasp McDonagh's towering vision. In fact, he seizes on and mocks such analysis. As the play's dizzying series of tales and lies unfolds, perspectives keep shifting and blurring: in one scene, The Pillowman is the blackest of all comedies; in the next, the most cheerful of any tragedy. It is, as Katurian exasperatedly proclaims, "a puzzle with no solution". What becomes clear - perhaps the only thing clear - is that McDonagh concerns himself only with the story he is telling, not what it could mean, signify or allude to. Like Katurian, he's not "saying anything at all" - and why should he? A story's power to amuse, frighten and enchant is already all-consuming and absorbing in itself, and McDonagh's ability to weave these possibilities into a coherent dramatic frame is a testament to his will and skill.

Comedy in The Pillowman also makes you vulnerable to its horror; in turn, the shock and revulsion such horror provokes sets up the next macabre joke and surefire laugh. Ensuring that one scene does not anticipate, and hence betray another, Tracie Pang's finely calibrated direction captures and sustains the rollercoaster extremes of McDonagh's work, eliciting smiles that split into gasps, and laughter that abruptly stops in its tracks. She understands that in a good story, one should never be able to tell what will happen next.

Pang's meticulousness also blurs the lines between reality and fiction, immersing you thoroughly in McDonagh's dark and twisted world. Call me gullible, but the gunshot in the closing sequence was deafening and frighteningly lifelike: suspension of disbelief or not, I wondered momentarily if Adrian Pang's Tupolski was wielding a real gun. Blood oozing from the still figure of Katurian after he was shot only reaffirmed that. Pang also pulls off some tricky sleights of hand in the torture scenes: Katurian bears the swollen lip and bruises of the heavy blows immediately after they are leveled on him. One of the most chilling moments in the play comes when Ariel plunks a heavy set of electrodes beside Katurian, cackling sadistically as he closes the circuit to send electric sparks flying in all directions. A woman dressed in a shawl and cocktail dress in front of me abruptly leaned forward and clutched her knees in a foetal and rather unglamorous posture, shock, anxiety then weariness registering on her face.

Narrative art is the blood and spirit of the production: at the evening's end, everyone is branded as a storyteller of sorts. Daniel Jenkins' Katurian is as much a master of storytelling as he is mastered by it. During the interrogation, Katurian is fraught with the nervous energy of someone thrashing about in an emotional no-man's land. When he tells stories, the hunted look in his eyes disappears; his face is flushed with the ecstasy and vitality of someone who inhabits the world of fantasy he creates. This remarkable change is also reflected in his surroundings: the harsh lighting of the interrogation room fades into a soft glow trained on Katurian, which radiates as much from him as it does from the lights. Good-cop bad-cop duo Tupolski and Ariel also tell anecdotes of their "problem childhoods" with a clumsy, childlike eagerness, enraptured by storytelling but unable to transform their stories into art. Truth is specious in this morbidly fascinating world of fiction. "I kind of hate any writing that's vaguely autobiographical," Katurian says, "I think people who only write about what they know only write about what they know because they're too fucking stupid to make anything up."

The cast realizes McDonagh and Pang's creative vision with some of the finest performances I have seen in theatre. Daniel Jenkins' Katurian is a picture of intense pain and incommunicable passion. Michael Corbidge burrows deep into the character with his usual discipline, turning in a carefully measured, stunning portrayal of Katurian's brother, Michal. If you think his performance is just a set of tics and mannerisms - repeated phrases and compulsive hand gestures - you need only look into the actor's eyes to see how deeply he is committed to perceiving the world the way Michal does. The brotherly love that Jenkins and Corbidge's characters exude also locates an almost redemptive sense of poignancy and earnestness in the bleak, morally topsy-turvy world they inhabit.

As police officer Tupolski, Adrian Pang infuses the production with a louche vitality, his barely suppressed chuckle and terrifyingly quiet voice lending a gentle, murderous touch to the good-cop bad-cop mind game he plays with Katurian. Throughout the evening he reminds Katurian that he is the "good cop", yet consistently provokes simple-minded "bad cop" Ariel to assault him, and coolly executes Katurian "seven and three-quarter seconds" after the latter puts his hood on despite promising him a full "ten seconds".

Even Susan Tordoff and Andy Tear, who play comparatively minor roles, are riveting in their chillingly precise mimes of a variety of abusive and psychotic parental figures. However, as "bad cop" Ariel, Shane Mardjuki seems uncomfortable in his own skin for most of the first act, his movement on stage too studied as he paces around the stage fumbling with his cigarette case. You can almost see him thinking, "I am acting nervous now" or "I shall look agitated now". Oddly enough, in the second act, he finally understands McDonagh's language and relaxes into it, impressively conveying the sadistic yet tortured demeanour of Ariel.

The unsettling power of The Pillowman lies in McDonagh's subversion of sentimental consolations, and almost gleeful willingness to push the dreadful implications of any story to their blackest conclusions. It is a fable about a world that is a fable - what you see and hear is infernal and dark as a grave, except that you might just as well call it heavenly.

"The unsettling power of The Pillowman lies in McDonagh's subversion of sentimental consolations, and almost gleeful willingness to push the dreadful implications of any story to their blackest conclusions."


Playwright: Martin McDonagh

Director: Tracie Pang

Production Designer: wu + brown

Lighting Designer: Suven Chan

Sound Designer: Darren Ng

Multimedia Designer: Alien, Flaky & Friends Animation Studios

Cast: Daniel Jenkins, Adrian Pang, Shane Mardjuki, Susan Tordoff, Andy Tear, Alecia Chua and Michael Corbidge

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Amos Toh

Ratings out of 5, based on Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent / Rapturous;
**** = Crystal / Appreciative; *** = Transmitted / Thoughtful; ** = Vague / Unsatisfied; * = Uncommunicated / Mystified.