It’s only taken twelve years since its first release; last week saw the opening and Irish premiere of The Pillowman at the Gaiety Theatre. It also marked the return of the work of acclaimed playwright and screenwriter Martin McDonagh to Irish theatres.
It is a complex work, and certainly not one for the faint-hearted, or the easily offended. It touches on troubling themes, and the darker and most uncomfortable parts of human nature, dealing with issues such as murder, child abuse and neglect. It is a work in which contradictions become the norm; where the grotesque rubs shoulders with the tender, and the absurd sits side by side with the grippingly real. It deals in the currency of that which ought to be left unspoken, and shines a glaring light and the hypocrisies and inconsistencies that make us human.
In tone, the work bears resemblance to a child’s nightmare, an element masterfully enhanced by the set design by Owen MacCartháigh. Harsh reality, juxtaposed with dark fairy tale, make for a mood that is visually reminiscent of a terrifying fever dream. Yet, amongst the ghoulish elements, there are instances of great humanity, of family and the difficult places that both love and loyalty can lead us.
Underneath it all, it is a story about storytelling and the very act of writing itself. As we are told by our protagonist (the unfortunately named Karturian K Karturian) “The first duty of a story teller is to tell stories.” Yet, in the totalitarian state in which the play is set, this task is less than simple. The action in the work centres around the writer Karturian (played by Peter Campion), who is brought before the secret police when the contents of his gruesome short stories start to appear at the murder scenes of young children.
Yet, despite its dark themes and concerns, consistent with McDonagh’s other works, both on stage and screen, it is also desperately funny. Revelling in a black brand of humour in which the writer excels, and which both cast and director have brilliantly brought to life in this production, it constantly challenges the audience. Lies are told, for sport and for survival, and sympathies are constantly divided. It is a child’s tale for adults, and for the real world; in this work, there is no comfort in the divide between right and wrong, for that divide cannot be found. We so often feel we ought not to laugh at the issues that are being thrown in front of us onstage, but in the case of The Pillowman, you find at many points that there is very little else you can do.
The Pillowman is an exploration of the difficulties of humanity. While it exposes the very worst in what humanity can become, it is at the same time redemptive. It shows that while the first duty of a story teller might be to tell stories, what matters in the end is how you choose to tell them. And it can be safely said that this production, thanks to the efforts of those involved, manages it with style, sympathy and a great degree of soul.
The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh runs at the Gaiety until the 14th March at 7.30pm nightly, Saturday matinée 3pm. Tickets from €19.95.