When is a story just a story?
This is the question that haunts Martin McDonagh’s play The Pillowman. Not for the faint of heart, McDonagh forces his audience to contemplate when a story crosses a line, ceases to be words on a page but emerges into something heart wrenching and dangerous. The Pillowman is only a story, acted out by performers whose lives continue into curtain call, but it’s difficult to remind yourself of this when the production is hauling you headlong into the depths of a very dark and twisty world.
Audience members have extreme reactions to The Pillowman. Whether they’re disgusted by the horrific images, or taken with McDonagh’s sophisticated dark humor, or transfixed by insightful questions raised about freedom for art, thought and at what point an artist can be blamed for actions inspired by his work. Until you have sat in the theatre and witnessed it, you cannot know which reaction you’ll feel most intensely.
Despite the profundity of the questions it raises The Pillowman is a story and at CanStage it is portrayed with conviction, emotion and nuances of inescapable human experience. It’s difficult to keep the characters at a distance. Katurian, played by Shaun Smyth, is a writer who lives in a totalitarian state. Despite a horrifying childhood, Smyth’s Katurian seems cautiously optimistic. He is nurturing to his younger brother, has a strong sense of morals, yet has a skewed sense of using extreme violence to protect innocence and children. Smyth captivatingly and heartbreakingly holds all of Katurian’s complexities and contradictions in his hand while encouraging an audience to believe such a human can exist and be so likeable.
Also determined to save children is Officer Ariel, played with supreme rage and touching vulnerability by Oliver Beckett. The similarities between Ariel and Katurian are beautifully highlighted in Beckett’s performance, as is his uncertainty about whether to pound Katurian or turn the hand on himself. Ariel’s partner, Officer Tupolski (Richard McMillan) is also fraught with contradiction. With ease, McMillan is able to take his character on a fascinating journey from blundering bureaucrat to erratic, calculating totalitarian. Paul Fauteux is painfully innocent and happy-go-lucky as Katurian’s mentally handicapped brother Michal. Fauteux’s gestures, movements and vocal intonation create a brilliant unspoken subtext between the actor and the audience which enriches Michal’s past and illuminates the stories.
Director David Ferry allows McDonagh’s story to speak plainly through his cast of brilliant performers. One choice that works well is his use of puppets to depict Katurian and Michal’s childhoods. This allows the audience distance from disturbing imagery and gives a gift of comic relief in an intense show.
With its outstanding performances, tough questions, horrific imagery and humor audiences can’t help but laugh at, despite suspicions laughter isn’t the appropriate response, CanStage offers an intense, yet beautiful, opening to their 2008 season. After all, there is no place for “appropriate” in a Martin McDonagh play.