Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Pillowman

A while back, Mrs The Millbrooker and I trekked all the way to Oxford to see a production of one of Martin McDonagh's plays, The Cripple of Inishmaan.

As McDonagh is the subject of Mrs The Millbrooker's studies, we tend to take any opportunity to check his works out and a few days ago she found that the graduating students of Bath Spa University's School of Performing Arts were presenting The Pillowman at the Ustinov Studio in Bath. One phone call later and our Saturday arrangements were hastily re-organised to include a trip to Bath and a matinee performance.Naturally enough, in a theatrical production we didn't take any photos during the performance, so photos hereafter are purely for illustrative purposes and are not from the production that we saw. Mrs The Millbrooker and I are both familiar with the play from script readings, but hadn't seen it performed before.

The Pillowman is an intense and darkly funny play about police brutality, totalitarianism and the overall human condition. The characterisations, in common with much (all?) of McDonagh's work are almost caricatures and give a knowing wink to the audience's own knowledge of stereotypes. I've thought about this review overnight: how to approach it in terms of the actual production that we saw? It was put on, as I mentioned, by graduating performing arts students so should one judge it by fully professional standards, or make allowances for lack of budget and experience (hey - I know a thing or two about that after putting on Accidental Death of an Anarchist for about tuppence ha'penny a few years back)?

Well, as it was performed in a fully professional performance space and full priced tickets cost £7 each (remember we paid £8 to see top end performers Máire Chathasaig and Chris Newman), plus the show was being presented by people intending (presumably) to make their living in performance and theatre, this had better be a pretty honest review.

The set was minimal: in this instance a very good thing. The play is dramatic enough without fussy set design; the company made imaginative and effective use of the small performance space available. I was particularly impressed by the use of a narrow dais at the rear of the stage for use as children's bedrooms and for the enactment of some scenes as stories are told from downstage.

The lighting was also kept minimal to good effect: basically steel-blues, kept low-ish and creating a brooding, stark atmosphere which suited the play well. A word to the wise, though; in a very restricted space when the audience really can see just about everything, get the lighting OFF a freshly killed character onstage and get it off quickly - we can clearly see him breathing and that distracts from anything else that's going on.

The unpleasant and discordant soundtrack used during the audience's arrival into the auditorium was very effective in creating a sense of discomfort and foreboding. As was the old trick of having an actor already in position as we filtered in; the actor in question being Chris Caines as Katurian sitting with a hessian hood over his head.Caines spent 15 minutes or so in this position, fumbling about with his hands and trying to portray angst by his bent demeanour and frequent fidgeting. I felt that total stillness would have been far more affecting; does a man left alone expecting interrogation not even peep from under the torturer's hood rammed over his head unless he is completely cowed and unable to move? I don't know, truth be told, but that's how I think I'd have asked it to be played had I been directing.

What to say about Caines' central performance as the doomed story teller Katurian? The young man had clearly learned his multitudinous lines well and certainly didn't bump into the furniture, but overall his performance seemed to lack the spark of life that makes Katurian a real person - a driven, obsessive, passionate writer. I found the overall lack of expression in the line recital diminished my belief in the character.

The undoubted star in terms of his ability to both amuse, offend, entertain and disgust was Matthew Johnson as the chief interrogator Tupolski. He'd latched onto an almost Arthur Daley-esque level of humour, laced with a subtle sense of menace. His portrayal of high ranking disinterest and banal violence was at times ludicrously funny, at others shocking in the sheer inevitability of it all. If I were to have directed I would have asked for more menace and less anger; rather than shout when the character becomes enraged, slow everything down and enunciate very, very carefully. That might have created something very special, but that's not to take away from the very well given performance that we watched.Arron Johnson as Ariel, the thuggish lower ranking copper, was sadly often unintelligible during the frequent shouting and bug-eyed anger as he threatened Katurian during interrogation. We had hopes that his second appearance would provide some more depth as Ariel's abused childhood is revealed, but Johnson pretty much continued in the same vein of shouting and looking angry which left us feeling that he only had a few actorly tricks to pull. Perhaps it just wasn't his role.

Last among the principals was James Gamage as Michal, Katurian's brother. Michal has learning difficulties and finds himself in a place that he neither understands nor can hope to understand. Gamage gives a creditable show in this role, finding the humour and using a knack of comic timing to get us laughing and then feeling as if we shouldn't have. Mind you, I could have done without the girl sitting behind snorting and giggling constantly because she obviously knew the performer and thought it amusing that he was twisting his body and slurring his words in character, not because he'd said or done anything funny. Gamage occasionally neglected to keep his awkward body movements going, but otherwise his was a highly enjoyable performance - well done.

The supporting cast were more choreography than acting (and that's entirely intentional within the production, and pretty much within the script); their choreography was nicely done and effective.

Overall, I'm very pleased we saw this show; I'm truly not negative about it even though some things I've written above aren't exactly praising it to the skies. The play itself is a tremendous work and as a whole the troupe did well. I hope they all go on to whatever they want for themselves and if a career on the boards is what they're after, I wish them the very best of luck. There's some promise there, and you never know...

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