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Review: The Pillowman by Chris Chilton

Phillie Holmes was certainly understating the case when she said The Pillowman wasn’t your typical Roger Hall-style feelgood play – disturbing, yes; harrowing, definitely; not for a moment is it comfortable.

It’s a psychological crime drama set in a dystopian dictatorship that echoes Orwell’s 1984 with its bleak disregard for life and artistic expression. In this colourless setting a series of gruesome child murders has occurred, mirroring the storylines of author Katurian (Conrad Broad), who has been arrested on suspicion and is being interrogated with extreme prejudice by a pair of jaded police officers.

Katurian’s intellectually impaired brother Michal (Logan Dalgity) is being held in the next room, and the two officers, Tupolski (Neil McDonald) and Ariel (Sophie Worner), blur the lines between good cop and bad cop as they work on breaking Katurian to extract a confession.

Although innocent of the charges, Katurian has skeletons in his past and is resigned to his impending fate. His desperation rises as he tries to broker a deal with the police so they don’t destroy his life’s work, his stories, after they execute him.

There is violence, swearing, shouting, torture and depictions of sadistic murder, so come prepared for a tough night.

The Pillowman’s relentlessly grim content is quite draining to witness and absorb. I can only imagine the demands it makes of the young cast, very few of whom will have encountered anything like this before.

Commendations to Holmes and her excellent actors for their fearless commitment to this punishing play. While it is a wordy piece, the pace and intensity build throughout, making it a riveting watch, if not a pleasant one.

Holmes works a minimal set expertly, with Katurian’s horror stories re-enacted behind a thin black curtain at the back of the stage. The scenes are disturbing but within this ugliness an element of beauty lightens the load, through a passage of original dance choreographed by Ezri Dalgity.

The acting of the four leads is sublime. It’s a complicated piece and all four rise to meet the challenge with a great deal of skill.

Much of it rests on Broad’s shoulders. As the central character and narrator of the stories he has a massive workload as Katurian but he brings physicality and emotional range to the part and is a compelling figure.

Logan Dalgity’s performance as the damaged Michal is stunning. His portrayal of young man with a child’s intelligence is frenetic and fearless while Neil McDonald brings an air of detached amusement and self-importance to his role as the bureaucratic pen-pusher Tupolski.

The most nuanced role belongs to Sophie Worner, who excels as the angry cop Ariel. While at first it seems Ariel is herself just a sadistic criminal with a badge, she has layers that are revealed late in the piece. Ariel allows herself to become empathetic towards Katurian as the truth unfolds and we realise they share a similarly abusive past. I thoroughly believed Worner’s transformation and applaud her casting as this character, which was initially written as a male.

While there is no joy to be found in this relentlessly grim tale of terror, abuse and tyranny, The Pillowman is a confrontational dramatic work, memorably performed by an exceptional Southland cast.

Ticketing: $30 at Eventfinda. Door sales, student and senior discounts available.
Doors from 6:30pm. Eftpos bar available.
Contains strong language and violent themes.
This production features strobe lighting.

If Katurian has a moral for us in this depressing tale, it’s that no matter how unsavoury the medium or the message may be, freedom of expression is a principle worth dying for.

This production is the first amateur performance of Martin McDonough’s award-winning play in New Zealand, and it is a courageous thing Holmes and Repertory Invercargill have done.

REVIEW
THE PILLOWMAN
Repertory Invercargill
Writer: Martin McDonough
Director: Phillie Claire Holmes
Repertory House, Invercargill
16-19 October

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