Image: Joel Russell

“A meta re-envisioning of the way you tell a story”: preview of ‘The Pillowman’

The publicity for The Pillowman depicts a cross dangling above an angry-looking pig in a triangular void of blackness. The vibe is, to say the least, foreboding. Then I read a summary of the play: set in a dystopian reality, it follows the interrogation in a police cell of a writer called Katurian Katurian Katurian whose gruesome short stories bear an uncanny resemblance to child killings that are occurring. So far, so pretty depressing.

But when I put this to co-directors Matt Owen and Oscar Sadler, and actors Toby Ghebru and Teddy Davis, they assure me that there is a lot more nuance to this show than their posters and long list of trigger warnings might suggest. Davis, playing chief policeman Tupolski, reminds me that all of Martin McDonagh’s work (think In Bruges, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) while dealing with dark themes, has dark humour running through it. “One of our biggest problems right now,” he says, “is trying not to laugh on stage.”

I assume he’s joking, but the bark of laughter from the rest of the team suggests that he isn’t exaggerating. Sadler insists that the comedy in the script is one of their main focal points. “It would be so draining as an audience member if you went to watch just two and a half hours of tension. So we’re working very hard to lift that – every moment of comedy is going to be funny, we’re not skipping over any of it.”

All of Martin McDonagh’s work, while dealing with dark themes, has dark humour running through it

Ghebru, playing the thrice-named Katurian (his ridiculous name exists, they reckon, purely for the sake of one gag) also points out the humanity that can be found in each of the – admittedly troubled – characters. “There are some real moments of sincerity and tenderness between some of them. It’s really quite powerful, seeing these fleeting moments of tenderness amidst the chaos.”

The team has worked hard in rehearsal at unlocking what drives each character. Sadler points out that with only four characters on stage, speaking about such intense subjects, “they need to be grounded somewhere for the production to work.” Davis adds that “while we’ve developed sympathy for these characters, it doesn’t make what they say or do morally permissible.”

Indeed, there is no getting away from the fact that the play contains violence. Owen compares it to Tarantino – “it’s kind of like the blockbuster action movie which is violent but also not offensive. It was written at the turn of the millennium, when we were big on ultra-violent shocking films and plays. Now as a culture we’re much less willing to subject ourselves to traumatic art.”

Now as a culture we’re much less willing to subject ourselves to traumatic art

Matt Owen

So the directors have thought very carefully about how to represent the violence to the modern audience. They decided, “rather than to viscerally depict that violence onstage, to depict it through dance. We think the play focuses on the beauty and the power of storytelling, and to undercut that with shock value doesn’t do service to the elegance of the stories, regardless of the content. The form of dance is a way of getting across the violence and the visceral without overwhelming the audience, while still drawing attention to the lyricism and the rhythm of the story.”

This production is, then, a “meta re-envisioning of the way you tell a story”. You can’t remove the violence of the script but, Sadler explains, “instead of numbing an audience to violence, we wanted to focus on those moments, what they mean to the characters, what their motivations behind it are. That’s the crux of the text.”

Ghebru says that the “overarching question I ask myself is, is Katurian as bad as the stories he writes? There’s a question of whether you’re a product of your environment or whether the stories you write just reflect your environment. How much can you detach that from the writer himself and how much can you say that he is changing people’s minds?”

The form of dance is a way of getting across the violence and the visceral without overwhelming the audience

Matt Owen

It comes down to a question of responsibility. “Who is responsible?” asks Sadler. “Is it the writer, the artist, the reader, the audience, the editor?” The play explores “whether violent art makes people commit violent acts. When life imitates art, who should be held responsible – the artist, or the person who did those actions?”

The team clearly love entangling themselves in these big questions, and it is a pleasure to join them. But philosophical ideas alone do not make a show, and as Sadler points out, “the first and foremost responsibility for an artist is to ensure that your audience is entertained. They need a spectacle, to walk away talking about it, having enjoyed it and engaged with it.” The team are hopeful that the dancers will provide a lot of that. “There’s 35 minutes of pure dance in this show. And it’s not just dance with hand movements, it’s jumping, rolling, dance. They need to have knee pads!”

The first and foremost responsibility for an artist is to ensure that your audience is entertained

Oscar Sadler

The whole production is accompanied by an original score, written by June Ong. Influenced by Hans Zimmer, she’s written a score that is “so cinematic, it ebbs and flows and peaks at moments in the story, and turns with every ‘but’ and ‘however’. She’s also left silence in moments of huge swells… She’s done an unbelievable job.” This production draws on the talents of many students, so much so that, Davis reckons, “the actors have got the easiest job!”

With all the individual elements ready to go, their final job is “to meld it all together”. Davis is aware that “when you perform in the Arts Centre you’re very well scrutinised, people come out in the interval and talk. But I’m at the point now that I’m fully comfortable with people judging us because we’re very proud of it.” That sounds like a challenge put to the audience – you know where you need to be in reading week.

The Pillowman is at the Warwick Arts Centre, 13-16 February. Tickets are available here.

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