Two years ago I saw The Pillowman performed at the Oxford Playhouse and was utterly gripped. Martin McDonagh’s play about the interrogation of a troubled writer and his brother in their “Totalitarian Fucking Dictatorship” had me reeling. But this is a show in its own right and deserves more than a comparison with the 2014 production. To the intimate space of the Pilch Studio, ATG Productions deliver a very different and a very compelling Pillowman; one that held just the same power over me.
This version distinguishes itself by a series of clever directorial decisions. Its crowning moment is a shadow-puppet sequence that retells writer Katurian’s tortured childhood. Movement here is masterfully executed, and if set designer Eve Finnie is responsible for the beautifully crafted puppets then she deserves great praise. A further of Katurian’s stories is related through a television: it’s another innovative idea, but this time one that doesn’t quite achieve the visual impact.
Usually, though, the play is visually impressive. A row of blindingly bright floodlights works well to create dream-like, ethereal moments, and sound is crucial for the breaks of tension that punctuate McDonagh’s script. Perhaps less intentional were drops in suspense that accompanied chaotic set changes – unfortunately, these let down the show’s otherwise very professional aesthetic.
Acting occasionally lacked energy but was generally very good. I enjoyed the different pairings we saw on stage: Ariel and Tupolski, Michael and Katurian, Katurian and Tupolski, and so on. Directors Will Cowie and John Maier have obviously worked hard with the cast to develop and differentiate characterisation and that pays off. The four cast-members played off one another well and between all of them were relationships that felt believable.
But Pillowman’s stand-out performances came from Joe Stephenson and Christian Amos as Detective Inspectors Topolski and Ariel, respectively. The two make a great pairing. Amos’ emotion was fantastically controlled; the angrier of the duo, he did not allow this to dominate. The role was subtle and unpredictable. Meanwhile, a monologue from Stephenson, about “the little old Chinese man in a tower” was just brilliant. With perfect timing, it is Stephenson, throughout, who nails the play’s black comedy.
I did have criticisms, though. Pacing was an issue, especially during storytelling scenes. They’re tricky moments to execute but, I think, crucial: I was frustrated to find my attention drifting at points that should be most symbolic. It would have been nice to see some more puppetry or perhaps a physical sequence; in any case, an injection of energy was needed.
This wasn’t a flawless show but at moments it came near exquisite. A closing tableau gave me goose-bumps, and I left the Pilch feeling satisfied that I had seen another impressive take on McDonagh’s ingenious play.