Martin McDonagh’s disturbing, yet humorous play The Pillowman was hailed by the New York Times as one of the top 10 plays of the decade, therefore anyone who dares to stage it themselves must be ready to carry out a thoroughly well-executed performance and bear the responsibility of such a demanding piece of theatre. Overall Fourth Wall Theatre’s production team met these demands, and should be immensely proud of their visually stunning and technically superb creation vaguely reminiscent of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror.
The audience is immediately set on edge as soon as they come into the room, with Karturian (Emma Howell) already present on stage, black bag over her head and discordant sound effects echoing around the auditorium. We are then plunged into the bizarre world of McDonagh’s unspecified Orwellian state as detectives Ariel (Annie Davison) and Tupolski (Sarah Slimani) jauntily make their way onto the stage to jarringly upbeat music; this opening sets the tone for what continues to be a darkly humorous; Kafkaesque; oddly touching, and overall well-rounded spectacle.
The first and third acts were dominated by Slimani’s performance as Tupolski; she demonstrated a masterful understanding of the emotional range of the role as well as showcasing sparkling comedic timing. The role of Michal (Wilf Wort) was also performed to a great standard, with Wort’s strong physicality and effective use of language powerfully used to convey the impaired nature of his character. Howell gave an effective delivery of some of Karturian’s more aggressive lines, and she took very well to the surreal nature of the staging – however, she had the tendency to underreact in places, and her projection was not always as strong as it needed to be. Davison should be given credit for tackling a very physically and emotionally demanding role. Whilst Ariel’s physical fury in the first act lacked gravitas and presence, she did perform exceptionally well in the third act, profoundly displaying the character’s emotional discordance (perhaps she would have been better utilised in a role where this clear strength could have been played to more effectively). Some further line polishing in general could be done by the cast as more than a few slip ups during deeply emotional scenes broke immersion in a world so beautifully and convincingly built.
Overall the play was definitely a showcase of director Rohan Perumatantri’s mad genius and theatrical vision for which he cannot be praised enough, nor can his technical team for their execution of an extremely complex design with slick style and panache. An array of techniques were used to great effect in the illustration of Kartutrian’s macabre stories, ranging from an innovative usage of shadowgraphy, to surrealist staging facilitated by excellently framed lighting (technical directors Tanya Agarwal and Tyler Rainford) and sound design (by Nikhil Vyas). Noteworthy parts of the set (by Henry Fell) include some gorgeous LED clouds and an ominous child’s bedroom made out of a black frame and an array of stuffed animals hanging from their hind legs. Props were artfully employed, such as some very unnerving animal masks, and a large – but far from gratuitous – amount of fake blood. One of the most unsettling scenes was made even more sinister by the use of a particularly creepy doll-turned-puppet manipulated to chilling effect by Davison and Wort. While there is so much good to be said about the technical side of this production, there were still a few faults which detracted slightly from some of the key moments. It was unfortunate that the UV cannons (used to highlight a backdrop painted with UV paint) caused a very loud, incessant buzzing that distracted the audience from the dialogue. Occasionally the sound effects caused a few lines to be lost, particularly in the first act where often projection wasn’t quite sufficient.
In general the production value and acting talent showcased in this performance made it truly excellent and a pleasure to watch – many others seemed to feel the same, with one audience member calling it “a feast for the eyes”, a statement that would be impossible to dispute. We are in absolute agreement in saying that we would – without any reservations – recommend The Pillowman; Perumatantri’s directorial prowess has made it a show that, simply put, cannot be missed.
With contributions from Jake Hathaway.