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Theatre: A hymn to word-power


The Pillowman

The Pillowman

The Pillowman

Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman dates from 2003, the same year in which The Lieutenant of Inishmore premiered.

The latter is the only one of his "black Irish comedies" (which have gained the writer both fame and fortune), which I found convincing enough to be a good play, perhaps because the central character, an insane INLA torture-master, is utterly believable as a subject for such violent treatment. If you don't laugh at the hideous saga of paramilitary torture/murder, you too might go insane.

The Pillowman is different: it's not set in Ireland, for a start. And being both serious and universal, it doesn't have the boring and lengthy sneer at supposed national characteristics perceived from an English standpoint. McDonagh sets out to interrogate totalitarianism with its shadowy fears of dissent, perceived and actual. It is quietly, disturbingly funny rather than being in your face; it even celebrates the human spirit.

Katurian is a writer, a very unsuccessful writer. Of the 400 horror stories he has written, only one has been published… in an underground opposition publication disapproved of by the authorities. And it lands Katurian in gaol in his unnamed homeland, being interrogated by the supposedly sophisticated be-suited Tupolski and his underling, the loud-mouthed, impatient and overtly threatening Ariel, whose preferred methodolgy is to go straight for the electrodes

Katurian's mentally handicapped brother is in a separate cell, and can be heard screaming under torture.

But where is reality? And McDonagh's inspired dialogue proceeds to interrogate perceptions of reality as well as perceptions of freedom, as Katurian's past is revealed through a series of depictions of the stories that have been found in the brothers' flat. They all depict hideous torture murders of children that seem to be the precursors of actual killings in the real world. And were the stories themselves things of reality or nightmare?

Yes, Katurian is a killer: but killing too can be a matter of comparative morality in this dark world where the future is manipulated by perceptions of political policy, with only the written word as protective testament.. if it is allowed to survive.

Decadent Theatre company and the Belfast Lyric have given The Pillowman its Irish premiere (at the Gaiety in Dublin; and touring to Everyman, Cork; and the Lyric). It is an unquestionably superlative production of a marvellous, thought-provoking play, to the point of being pretty well faultless.

Directed tautly and sensitively by Andrew Flynn in a superbly executed and imaginative set by Owen MacCarthaigh, the play features Peter Campion as Katurian, David McSavage as Tupolski, and Gary Lydon as Ariel.

All are magnificent, but it is Michael Ford-FitzGerald who is the most memorable as the insanely sane mentally handicapped brother Michal (sic)

The "stories" are acted in mime by Jarlath Tivnan, Kate Murray, Peter Shine, Tara Finn and Rosa Makela. The Pillowman is well worth travelling for.

* * * * *

Gary Duggan has managed to achieve what a number of Irish playwrights have tried and failed to do: fuse the gangster genre with the Irish psyche. Not that we don't have violent gangsters a-plenty in this country, but they are disconcertingly wedded to a kind of hungover version of "family values."

And the only family value in Duggan's Run/Don't Run is the use of Gene's East Harlem-located sofa as a shakedown for his younger cousin Eoin, newly arrived from Dublin.

Gene's in trouble: he's a minor drug-dealer, "forced" into the trade by mounting gambling debts held by some rather sinister New York overlords. His Dominican girl-friend Perdita wants none of it: she saw enough trouble as a child before settling in New York. And as for Eoin, in the way of most 20 year olds, he's not sure of anything other than that life can overwhelm you in a flash of one night of stupidity, in Dublin as easily as in New York.

Run/Don't Run is a tragedy, a complicated tale of small people forced to realise their smallness in the most terrifying way possible. And when they disappear from the world, in body or soul, there's no imprint left.

Duggan handles his creations extraordinarily well: you believe in hard chaw Gene with his cocky pretensions; you believe in Perdita, so haunted by her past that she believes life with Gene is a step up into security; you believe in Eoin, damned to run forever like the Wandering Jew of folklore, his life one of hopeless choices almost before it began.

Their stories are universal, and they happen every day, sometimes with the drama of guns, but always with a kind of terrible pre-destination.

The play does fall apart a bit in the final scene by becoming over-stagey, but it's a good piece of contemporary theatre, well directed by Aoife Spillane-Hicks for Bigger Picture Projects

Aonghus Og McAnally makes an impressive Gene, veering between lumbering bravado and pathos, with an equally good playing of Eoin by Sean Doyle. And Leah Minto, despite a slight projection problem, makes a heartfelt fist of the lost Perdita. Sound is by Denis Clohessy, with lighting by Sarah-Jane Shiels, and costumes that feel authentically US by Barbara McCarthy.

It was at the Civic Theatre in Tallaght, and will tour to Sligo, Castlebar, Kilkenny, and Project in Dublin.

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