Review: The Pillowman, Town Hall Theatre

Artists’ rights and principles are complicated issues. It’s tempting to take Katurian, the writer imprisoned by a totalitarian regime in The Pillowman, as a stand-in for the playwright Martin McDonagh, who at the time of writing was marked by critics for misrepresenting Irish life. Katurian and his brother are interrogated by two police officers about a series of murders that resemble the plots of his children’s stories. “The only duty of a storyteller is to tell a story”, he says with rare courage in Peter Campion’s performance. “No axe to grind, no anything to grind. No social anything whatsoever”. Draw your own conclusions, but a ruthless interpretation of a piece of art is not the artist’s responsibility.

Much like Katurian pleading for the preservation of his confiscated manuscripts, McDonagh seems concerned about his own legacy. Whatever reason it’s taken 12 years for an Irish home-grown production of his play to come along, director Andrew Flynn is most deserved to lead it; his Decadent theatre company has been rigorously producing and touring the playwright’s works in recent years.

The solid build of Gary Lydon may intimidate as the detective Ariel, but I challenge you to find a more sarcastic performance this year than comedian David McSavage as nasty detective Tupolski: “’We can draw our own conclusions’ is, sort of, our job”. If there’s any doubt that policing and literary criticism are entwined in McDonagh’s play, Owen MacCarthaigh’s sly set reassures us, opening up a tower-built cell like a picture book with adroit players (Jarlath Tivnan, Kate Murray, Peter Shine, Tara Finn and Rosa Makela) illustrating Katurian’s twisted stories. On the one hand it signals storytelling as a luxury of institutional power, on the other it represents the dark private recesses of the writer’s mind.

Yet there’s never a glint of wickedness in Campion’s eye as Katurian. Should there be? While the character denounces autobiography (“I think people who only write about what they know only write what they know because they’re too f**king stupid to make anything up”), are we to ignore a mind that can imagine stories involving children having their toes chopped off, re-enacting the crucifixion, and being guided by a pillow-made man towards suicide?

Regardless, Campion’s performance is inconsistent: hyperventilating and pushed towards pathetic in the interrogation scenes, but reined in significantly by Michael Ford-Fitzgerald’s shrewd playing of Katurian’s brother Michal, who’s “slow to catch on” after years of parental abuse. Ford-Fitzgerald’s embodiment of a damaged mind is most tragicomic and in the spirit of the event. McSavage is lacerating but he’s on a solo mission, not really listening to his co-actors, leaving Lydon straggling behind. A surer hand in Flynn’s direction would bring consistency to these performances.

The structure of McDonagh’s play is sophisticated, introducing a system of stories and references that allow us to read meanings into the action, and is here vibrantly realised by Flynn and MacCartaigh. The staging lacks an atmosphere of danger though, which a fight choreographer might otherwise have been helpful in creating. It feels relevant, especially in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo tragedy, as a drama championing the artist’s free speech. But in Decadent’s production, this mandate for why fearless writers are feared feels cushioned.

The Pillowman is playing at the Town Hall Theatre until 28 February and is touring until 18 April. For more information, see the Decadent theatre company website. Photo by Mike Shaughnessy