The best dark stories are told with a piercing balance of casualness and intensity, and this adaptation of Martin McDonagh’s play does exactly that. The wonderful people from Theatrethreesixty brings to you a breathtaking staging of The Pillowman.
Written by Martin McDonagh
Directed by Nicole-Ann Thomas
Production designed by Christopher Ling
Original Soundtrack & Soundscape by Vale Wong
Featuring Qahar Aqilah, Arief Hamizan, Phraveen Arikiah, Ivan Chan, Esther Liew, Vinna Law, Vale Wong and Marvin Wong
The play is about Katurian (Arief Hamizan), a storyteller caught in a sticky situation with the authorities. Although at first the reason for his arrest is unclear, the story soon unravels itself through the vehement exchange between him and two policemen, Tupolski (Qahar Aqilah) and Ariel (Ivan Chan). The setting is dystopian, based in a dictatorship where people can be prosecuted for the stories they tell (*referential wink*) and Martin McDonagh’s writing ensures that the exposition is made clear through organic conversations between the characters; not through awkward transition cards, elaborate backdrops or over-explanatory monologues (e.g. It was a sunny day at the dystopian town of Pyongyang, where horrible things happen to good people, etc). What is equally impressive as McDonagh’s writing, is how much justice this adaptation gives to the script.
The twinkling music-box melody of childhood innocence, the ominous feeling of dark things to come
Although the plot operates in two parallel worlds – the world of Katurian’s stories and the ‘real world’, where he is interrogated and detained by the policemen – the transition between them are seamless. Nicole-Ann Thomas directs the scenes as such that the worlds do not overshadow one another, but feeds into each other’s atmosphere. When Katurian relates one of his stories that he’s incriminated for, the emotions of all the actors mirror the twists and turns of the tale being told. The fact that the ensemble actors carry the scene in a pantomime, exaggerated manner do not destroy the gritty realism of the ‘real world’ scenes, but only serves to add to the eeriness of the story. There is so much artistry in the blocking; pay close enough attention and you notice that as the characters evolve in their uncertainty (trying really hard not to spoil the play here), where they stand reflects the stances they take.
The production design is commandeered by Christopher Ling and he does a brilliant job in pushing the play to its limit of immersion. One instance of that is with the lighting work, where the scenography are made to be positively chilling. One of Katurian’s stories are told exclusively through shadow and narration, almost like a morbid wayang kulit. With so much going on, the thing that really brings all of this together is the soundscape and soundtrack, originally composed by Vale Wong. The twinkling music-box melody of childhood innocence, the ominous feeling of dark things to come – all of which can be felt in his composition.
Even in a dialogue-focused play (a long one at that), the actors in this production undertook the challenge of maintaining the energy of the story successfully. Initially, Katurian’s character seems hard to love, what with his cloying nature with the cops and his absorption with his own writing career. This subtly changes when you learn about his relationship with his mentally-challenged brother, Michal (Phraveen Arikiah), and his supposedly facile worldview is given gravitas and sentiment. Arief Hamizan plays every facet of this role with panache, comprehensively portraying a man struggling between the love for his brother and the hellish fate that might befall him. Discerning and subtle in even the harshest of emotions, he bares as much as he can as Katurian, never compromising the urgency that is supposed to be felt in a play about a man who could possibly be executed for his alleged crimes.
The more established actors in the production have a lot to offer too. Qahar Aqilah’s interpretation of the superficially level-headed ‘good cop’ Tupolski is astounding. How can someone be so avuncular and evil at the same time? The bad cop, Ariel, might not be as emotionally complex as the main character, but Ivan Chan competently plays this role, capturing Ariel’s desperation to make sense of the world through his notion of righteous anger veiled by his bloodthirsty persona. Both Qahar and Ivan show great chemistry (or dissonance, since their characters hate each other), often being the source of dark humour in the story. Phraveen, as Michal, approaches the mentally disabled persona with wonderful subtlety, managing to make the audience feel frustrated with his actions, but also sympathize with his intentions.
The people that truly standout are the ensemble cast, consisting of Marvin Wong, Vinna Law, Esther Liew and Vale Wong. Even though each actor plays multiple roles across Katurian’s stories, they carry through this diverse range satisfactorily; whether it’s in Marvin’s portrayal as a child in one scene and a parent in the next, or in Vinna’s portrayal of manic, biblical characters. Very few dialogue is uttered by them, but through Nicole-Ann’s brilliant expertise in movement theatre, their pantomime portrayals are sharp and impactful.
The Pillowman sounds like a heavy play with a lot going on, but there is something in it for everyone. You don’t necessarily have to fall into endless musings about morality to enjoy it. The way it is staged is already a sight to behold, and there will definitely be a lingering feeling that leaves with you after 2 intense hours pf watching it. The Pillowman has a lot to serve on its plate, especially if you like your plate seasoned with dark humour. Don’t let the clunky poster fool you, this adaptation is smooth as silk.
Do check The Pillowman out at Enfiniti Academy. It is still showing until this Sunday (29 July). If you wanna find out more about the play, check out their Facebook page!