The Pillowman

Martin McDonagh
National Theatre
Theatre Royal, Newcastle

The Pillowman got rave reviews when it opened at the National back in November 2003. Now it has been recast and is in the middle of a seven venue tour. What will provincial audiences make of this play which BTG reviewer Philip Fisher described as "gut-wrenching", "shocking" and "black"?

To judge by tonight's audience in Newcastle, they'll lap it up. A very mixed audience, from young students to wrinklies of my generation, gave the company a long and sustained curtain-call and were a-buzz with it as they set off into the snowy night.

The stories written by the central character - and McDonagh has the Irish talent for storytelling - are black and bleak in their view of human nature, and the play which is wrapped around them and which arises from them reflects this. But McDonagh is Irish (Anglo-Irish, it is true, but Irish nonetheless) and there's also a touch of that sentimentality which seems to form a part of the Irish sensibility. It's not enough to ease the horror of what has gone before but it does relieve, just a tiny bit, the blackness of the ending. A little glimmer of hope, perhaps.

Set in a Soviet style, vaguely Eastern European totalitarian state where suspects taken into custody are "persuaded" to confess and are then shot in the same room, the play is a bit like a Russian Babushka doll or Peer Gynt's onion: layer after layer of darkness is revealed as the play progresses. But it isn't totally nihilistic: there is that little glimmer left at the end.

A combination of Hugh Vanstone's dark lighting (sounds like an oxymoron, but it's the only way to describe it) and Scott Pask's ingenious set design, enables the director (originally John Crowley, redirected for the tour by Toby Frow) to use two playing styles: stark naturalism for the main action and very stylised almost still pictures to illustrate the stories. Beautifully done, and very effective.

In spite of the blackness - and what could be more black than stories of children being murdered in what can only be described as obscene ways, set within a society where "judicial" murder is the norm? - there is much humour (of, of course, the black variety). It's in the script, of course, but the performances of the four main protagonists - Jim Norton as policeman Tupolski, Ewan Stewart as his subordinate Ariel, Lee Ingleby as writer Katurian and Edward Hogg as his spastic brother - make effective use of every opportunity.

You need a strong stomach for The Pillowman, but for those who can take it, it's a unique theatrical experience.

"The Pillowman" is at the Theatre Royal until 26th February, and then goes on to Warwick Arts Centre (1st - 5th March), The Lowry, Salford (8th - 12th March) and Cork Opera House (15th - 19th March).

Reviewer: Peter Lathan

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