The Pillowman

Circa Two, Circa Theatre, 1 Taranaki St, Waterfront, Wellington

01/11/2008 - 08/11/2008

Production Details

Playing with the thin edge between comedy and cruelty

Playwright Martin McDonagh explores the realm of fairy tales, comic irony, and brutality. The story crackles with the tension of a who-done-it, while, in McDonagh’s words, encouraging the audience to "laugh and think": laugh at the characters and their situations while reflecting on the cruel nature of both.

Evoking memories of the early tales of the Brothers Grimm, The Pillowman embodies the magic of a story well told, leaving the audience with a sense of completeness.

The Pillowman cast includes a blend of some of the best and most experienced New Zealand professional actors with up-and-coming performers from Toi Whakaari. Rob Lloyd, Jamie McCaskill, and Adam Brookfield lead a group of NZ drama school standouts including Adam Tatana, Cian White, Suli Moa, and Martine Gray.

The production is directed by Stuart Handloff and designed by Margaret Janowska, both in their final year of study at Toi Whakaari.

"The company is tremendously honoured to be working at the premiere professional venue in Wellington -Circa Theatre." says Director Mr Handloff. "We hope this will set a high standard for future collaboration between Toi Whakaari and Circa."

The Pillowman won the Olivier Award for Best New Play in 2004 and has been widely acclaimed in New York, London, and Australia. Ben Brantley, drama critic for the New York Times, has said that "what The Pillowman is celebrating is the raw, vital human instinct to invent fantasies, to lie for the sport of it, to bait with red herrings, to play Scheherazade to an audience real or imagined."

WHEN:  Friday 31 October – Saturday 8 November 2008
WHERE: Circa Two, Circa Theatre   
TIMES: Tue – Sat 7.30pm, Sun 4.30pm
TICKETS: $38/$32/$30 (check the Circa website for all ticket options)
Book at Circa (04) 801 7992.

Katurian - Jamie McCaskill
Michal - Adam Tatana
Tupolski - Robert Llyod
Ariel - Adam Brookfield
Mother - Cian White
Father - Suli Moa
Little Girl/Young Katurian - Sarita So

Designer - Marg Janowska
Lighting Designer - Adam Walker
Production Manager - Michael Blockley
Stage Manager - Paul Tozer

2 hrs (approx), incl. interval

Deeply disturbing imagery

Review by Lynn Freeman 05th Nov 2008

Playwright Martin McDonagh could very well claim to be the 21st century’s Grimm Brothers, given the bloody twists and turns he gives his stories in The Pillowman.

It’s a brutal play, where comic irony and deeply disturbing imagery fight it out.

"It’s a writer’s play," said the astute woman behind me at the end of opening night. That is both its strength and its weakness. McDonagh’s use of language is astonishing and his stories will haunt you.

But he’s so in love with language that he writes overly long duologues in situations which don’t offer directors and actors much chance for movement. Towards the end of the long first half there was a sense of the audience drooping, physically and emotionally.

But when it does grab you, which often it does, it’s mesmerizing. The opening scene where Katurian is being interrogated by Tupolski and Ariel is engrossing, with a real sense of threat extending out into the audience.

Katurian finds himself under arrest and facing execution for murders related to his often sadistic children’s stories.

Also under suspicion in the next cell is his brother Michal who has psychological problems because of his parents’ ill-treatment. The cop and the detective will stop at nothing to convict them, they are jury and executioner in this regime. Equally, Katurian will stop at nothing to stop his stories from being destroyed.

Rob Lloyd nails Detective Tupolski in a eerie and riveting performance, while as Katurian the storyteller, Jamie McCaskill portrays his humanity and inhumanity with equal conviction. Adam Tatana is nicely understated playing Katurian’s damaged brother Michal and menace abounds when Adam Brookfield takes the stage as the highly charged cop, Ariel.

It’s a brave director who takes The Pillowman on for all kinds of reasons. While Stuart Handloff is just finishing his Masters in Theatre Directing at Toi Whakaari, his bio tells us he’s had more than 30 years in the business. While the "enactment" scenes are clumsy and the pace is far too slow, he certainly gets the best from his talented four leads. 

Malgosia Janowska’s set design and Adam Walker’s lighting work extremely well, enhancing the claustrophobia offered by the small stage.
For more production details, click on the title at the top of this review. Go to Home page to see other Reviews, recent Comments and Forum postings (under Chat Back), and News.  


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Juicy questions

Review by John Smythe 03rd Nov 2008

A pillow, associated with softness and sleep, can also be the repository of nightmares and may be used to asphyxiate, be the murder vengeful or merciful. Martin McDonagh’s play on words and the stories they are fashioned into, is riddled with such paradigm shifts, twisting the stories within stories into a cord that amounts to either a load of old rope, enough rope to hang us all, or a knotty metaphor for the binds we find ourselves in as we try to reconcile challenging art with confronting reality and ascribe responsibility for the outcomes.

At the end of a week punctuated with news reports of the Nia Glassie murder/ manslaughter trial and Liam Reid’s conviction for the murder of Emma Agnew, The Pillowman‘s visiting of the truism that children subjected to violent, emotional and/or psychological abuse are likely to become sociopathic perpetrators of such crimes themselves, is especially vivid in its relevance.

This syndrome seems to be germane to the behaviours of writer Katurian K Katurian (his parents were "funny people"), his "slow" and simple brother Michal, and Tupolski and Ariel, the two policeman of the totalitarian dictatorship who have brought Katuruian in for questioning. But while their "problem childhoods" may explain them, does it justify the police brutality, the dark stories Katurian writes (see below) or the apparent innocence with which Michal appears to have imitated his brother’s ‘art’ in reality?

Then there are the lies the brothers tell to avoid getting hurt, to protect each other and – in Katurian’s case – to ensure that, above all, the stories themselves are not destroyed. This brings another truism into stark relief (if that’s the word): the more we deceive in order to avoid something, the more we are likely to bring it about.

McDonagh has created a metaphysical, meta-theatrical and meta-moral (if that’s a word) labyrinth that potently evokes the writings of the Brothers Grimm, Franz Kafka and Jorge Luis Borges, and the drawings of M C Escher. A darkly comic thriller, it is finally an intellectual game fuelled with volatile emotional gas. The challenge for its director, then, is to produce the most effective pitch and tone in performance.

MTA directing student Stuart Handloff, who has chosen The Pillowman as his graduation production, chooses not to tighten the dramatic tension and play up the fear factors for maximum dramatic and comic impact. Instead, in the intimate space of Circa Two, he opts for a relatively thoughtful production. Played for naturalistic truth – aside from the stylised evocations of parts of Katurian’s stories – it offers more of a meditation on the questions and themes than a rollercoaster ride through a maze of emotions.

Jamie McCaskill’s sincerely bewildered Katurian takes us through every step of his journey, inviting us to consider the choices we would make under such stress and duress.

The low-key approach of Rob Lloyd’s ‘good cop’ Tupolski contrasts well with Adam Brookfield’s ‘bad cop’ Ariel, a wired, vengeful and righteous crusader who commands our understanding if not our support.

Adam Tatana (3rd year Toi Whakaari student) pitches the simplistic innocence of Michal beautifully, being credibly childlike while seeming entirely capable of the mindless violence he is accused of.

Sarita So makes the brief glimpses of Katurian’s ubiquitous Little Girl character memorable while Cian White and Suli Moa (both second year acting students) play out the Mother and Father figures efficiently.

Designer Malgosia Janowska (the third Toi Whakaari: NZ Drama School graduand involved, with Handloff and Tatana, in this production) has created an excellent institutional interrogation room with a well utilised metal mesh wall on one side, a narrow cell bunk on the other and a back wall that illusively disappears for the story-within-story playlets. Adam Walker’s lighting design serves the production well by doing all it should without drawing attention to itself.

Watching the third performance (Sunday afternoon) with a small audience in an intimate theatre, I couldn’t help but wonder how it might play out in a large and full auditorium. Could it be the sort of tension-filled show that provokes the kind of mass laughter that in itself shocks and confronts us? If so, would that prove more challenging than this experience, where the sudden laughter of isolated individuals adds to the intrigue of a more quietly provocative production? Or would the former anaesthetise us to the key questions more than the latter does?

Such questions – about roles and responsibilities, in reality and in the realms of make believe – are the juice this The Pillowman leaves us with. While most may be unanswerable when it comes to legislating for standards of social behaviour in a free society, they may well influence our personal value systems as we accept responsibility for our own actions. And when it comes to affecting social change, that is probably about as much as we can hope for from a work of art.
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See Laurie Atkinson’s overview of the Toi Whakaari Graduation 2008 season.
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Katurian’s Stories (as summarised in Wikipedia)

The Little Apple Men
A young girl, whose father mistreats her, carves a set of little men out of apples. She gives them to her father, telling him to save them rather than eat them. He scoffs at her, and eats several. The men have razor blades inside, which kill the father. In a twist ending, however, at night the remaining apple men accuse the girl of killing their brothers, and they jump down her throat to kill her.

The Three Gibbet Crossroads
A man wakes up in an iron gibbet, aware that he has committed the crime he is being punished for, but unaware what the crime was. He sees two other gibbets, one marked Murderer and the other marked Rapist. Several people come by who have sympathy for the murderer and the rapist, but only disgust for the first man when they read the sign declaring his crime. The man is shot by a highwayman, still unable to determine what crime he could have committed that would be worse than murder or rape.

The Tale of the Town on the River
A young boy, mistreated by his parents, offers a strange dark rider a piece of his meal. Touched, the rider presents him a gift: he chops off the child’s toes. The conclusion of the story relates that the rider was the Pied Piper on his way to Hamelin to take away the children. Since the boy is now crippled, he cannot keep up with the other children, and is therefore the only child in the town to survive.

The Pillowman
The Pillowman is a being made out of pillows who visits people on the verge of suicide because of the tortured lives they have led. The Pillowman travels back in time to the person’s childhood and convinces them to commit suicide, thereby avoiding a life of suffering. This task saddens the Pillowman, however, and he decides to visit his own younger self, who readily commits suicide. This relieves the Pillowman’s sadness, but also causes all the children he saved to live out their miserable lives and eventually die alone.

The Little Green Pig
Katurian’s most juvenile story, but also the only one devoid of violence. A green pig, who enjoys his peculiar coloring, is mocked by the other pigs. The farmers use a special permanent paint to make the pig pink just like all the others. The pig prays to God to keep his peculiarity, and can’t understand why God ignored his prayers. Soon after, however, a magic green rain falls that makes all the other pigs green, and since the little pig retains his pink color, he is once again "a little bit peculiar" (66).

The Little Jesus
A young girl believes that she is the second coming of Jesus, and goes about blessing unsavory characters, to the dismay of her parents and the annoyance of others. When her parents are killed in a horrific accident, she is sent to live with abusive foster parents. Annoyed with her pretensions of divinity, the foster parents complete her performance of Jesus’ life by torturing her, crucifying her, and burying her alive so that she might rise again in three days, although she never does.

The Writer and the Writer’s Brother
Katurian was raised by loving parents, who encouraged him to write, and for many years he wrote very happy stories. However, at nights he began to hear sounds of torture from the next room, and as a result he began to write more disturbing stories. One night, a note is slipped under the door, claiming that Katurian’s brother has been tortured nightly for seven years as part of an artistic experiment to get Katurian to become a great writer. Katurian breaks down the door, only to find his parents, who were playing a trick on him, just pretending to be torturing a child. However, when Katurian returns years later, he discovers his brother’s dead body hidden under the mattress, clutching the manuscript of a beautiful story, better than any of Katurian’s, which Katurian burns. Later in Act II Katurian tells Mikhail that in the story, the character Mikhail was the true "writer" of the title, whereas his own character was merely the brother.


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