Monday, May 28, 2007
Review (of sorts): The Pillowman
It's rare that I walk out of live theatre, at least in comparison to films, which I am wont to abandon should I find myself hating the movie I'm watching. This is because I know the actors won't be hurt by seeing me get up and walk out in a cinema, as they can't actually see me, not being present except as two-dimensional representations. It's also because I tend to see more film than theatre, and after years of film festivals, have less qualms about debating the merits of sticking it out vs wasting my time on an unenjoyable experience.
When my old friend Sean and I went to see the latest MTC production on Thursday night, Irish playwright Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman, I didn't walk about as such, but I didn't go back into the theatre after interval.
In part this was because I was tired, and The Pillowman is a long play; two and a half hours. It was also because I found myself really disliking the production.
I definitely think the play needed editing; scenes felt padded and stretched out, especially some of the early scenes where the writer, Katurian K. Katurian (Joel Edgerton) is being interrogated by the police on charges he was initially unaware of. In a fascist police state, such a concept of course is totally credible, although the actual characters of the police, the bad cop (Greg Stone) and the good cop (Kim Gyngell) were far from credible, being overplayed and underdeveloped.
As the play unfolds we learn that Katurian has been pulled in due to certain key similarities between scenes in his stories (most of which are unpublished, and almost all of which involve nasty things happening to small children) and the recent murders of two children. A third has gone missing. Also arrested is Katurian's brother, Michael (Dan Wylie), who suffers from a 'learning disability'. It's not long before a post-torture Katurian is thrown into the same cell as his brother, whereupon we learn that as children, the pair were tortured and abused by their parents as part of a twisted social experiment which left Michael mentally and physically damaged, and which led Katurian's imagination down a very dark path.
What especially irked me about the play was its direction by MTC Artistic Director Simon Phillips, which confirms my opinion (developed by watching his productions of Tomfoolery and Entertaining Mr Sloane) that Phillips is incapable of successfully directing satire. This production has all the subtlety of a skinhead on a rampage, which rendered unfunny scenes amusing, and actually funny lines leaden or ineffectual.
Too many of the characters were overplayed, both the aforementioned policemen, and particularly Wylie's portrayal of Michael. To his credit, Wylie does the best that he can with the role, which he appears to have been ordered to play with an exaggerated grotesquerie. It didn't need to be so heavy-handed, complete with limp, twisted hands and exaggerated delivery of lines; some restraint would have made things far more convincing.
Alternatively, if Phillips wanted to present a character who was so obviously damaged, why not actually cast a handicapped actor from Back to Back Theatre for example, to invest the role with credibility? Perhaps that might be too challenging for the MTC audience, to protect whom, The Pillowman is being staged outside its traditional home at the Arts Centre, and who have been explicitly warned that the play contains adult and disturbing themes and is most definitely not for children. (Maybe I'm jaded, or simply broad-minded having seen all manner of confronting, challenging and macabe works on stage and screen in my time, but I honestly didn't think there was much about The Pillowman that was confronting at all; any real frisson of horror was eliminated by the combination of the repetitive text and the leaden production.)
Other things that annoyed me about this latest MTC production included certain ostentatious and unnecessary elements of the set design, and the audience themselves, who laughed because they seemed to think they had to, because comedian Kim Gyngell was on stage, and not because the text warranted such a reaction. Too, I think the dark nature of the text evoked embaressed laughter, because people didn't know how else to react.
At this stage I'm unsure if I will go back and see the post-interval part of The Pillowman. As it stands, it ended on a note which I thought was a perfectly adequate ending for the story, which I didn't need to see ruined by another hour; rather like those Hollywood films which add ten minutes of happy ending to ruin an otherwise perfectly good story. Should I go back? You tell me. Should I not be reviewing a play I didn't see through to the end? Why not. Hating something so much I wanted to leave is a sure sign, in my mind, of a production to be avoided. Were I writing this review for The Age rather than my personal blog I would naturally have stayed until the end. As it is, Sean was also happy to leave, and we wandered out into the night; him home, and myself in the direction of a couple of bars...