Overstuffed: Martin McDonagh’s “The Pillowman” by Pangdemonium

By Matthew Lyon

(513 words, 5-minute read)

I first saw Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman – in which writer Katurian is questioned by police-state detectives about a series of child-killings that mimic the plots of his stories – in Singapore Repertory Theatre’s 2007 production. Back then, I found the play too full of ideas that didn’t gel, but I also found it suspenseful and verbally electric. Ten years later, my knowledge of the plot has removed the element of suspense, and this makes the action limp along toelessly, while the dialogue loops like an MRT announcement. McDonagh is smirkingly smitten with the sound of his own voice: his supposedly taciturn characters are loquacious, and his verbose characters are downright logorrheic. They all often sound like the same person on different types of drugs.

Tracie Pang directed the 2007 production, and now she takes the reigns for her own company, Pangdemonium. Her approach is fundamentally unchanged from her solid earlier attempt—though she has considerably refined the fantastical interludes in which Bright Ong, Victoria Mintey and newcomer Prudence Rivero re-enact Katurian’s dark fables with unsettling, doll-like discipline. However, many scenes feel timid in their pacing, and at the matinee performance I attend, the cast’s energy is bright and thin.

Adrian Pang, in the showy role of Detective Tupolski, is most prone to this fluorescence. He concentrates more on the show than the role, flirting with the fourth wall and hard-selling his punchlines. He never quite inhabits his character’s darker recesses. Still, Adrian’s verbal dexterity and mercurial mood shifts are perfect for this narcissistic sociopath.

Shane Mardjuki, however, is badly miscast as bad-cop bruiser Ariel—just as he was in 2007. Granted, the past ten years have put some meat on Mardjuki’s bones, but he’s still more of a whippet than the bulldog the text describes. His bark is breathy and strained, and his growl is more of a gurgle. There is some bite to his physicality, but when he tortures Daniel Jenkins’ Katurian, it is Jenkins’ fear, not Mardjuki’s ferocity, that saves their scenes together.

Jenkins also reprises his role and is the strongest I’ve seen him. He is in a slightly different play from everyone else – one where the blood pumps thicker and isn’t made of corn syrup. He alone suggests that McDonagh’s tart confection of a play conceals a dense and savoury base beneath all the sugar and lemons.

Andy Tear, playing Katurian’s mentally disabled brother, Michal, does a creditable job of stitching together a character out of the mismatched, plot-convenient patches McDonagh has given him. But Tear suffers by comparison to the seamless needlework of Michael Corbidge’s 2007 incarnation.

The most striking difference from the 2007 production, however, is Eucien Chia’s magnificent set. The brutalist mass of its soviet interrogation room dissolves in the briefest of blackouts, and becomes an off-kilter, primary coloured domestic interior. And later, Darren Ng’s canny sound design and James Tan’s painterly lighting lend crucial support when the back wall vanishes to reveal a suspended glass coffin with the young Rivero trapped inside.

If only the world of McDonagh’s play was as cleverly hinged, cohesive and efficient.

The Pillowman by Pangdemonium ran at Victoria Theatre from 24 February to 12 March 2017. It was previously staged by Singapore Repertory Theatre in November 2007; it was also directed by Tracie Pang and starred Daniel Jenkins, Shane Mardjuki, Adrian Pang, Michael Corbidge, Andy Tear, Alecia Chua and Susan Tordoff.

About the author(s)

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Kathy Rowland is the Managing Editor of ArtsEquator.com, a registered charity that she co-founded with Jenny Daneels in 2016. The site is dedicated to supporting and promoting arts criticism with a regional perspective in Southeast Asia. Kathy has worked in the arts for over 25 years, working in the areas of critical writing and arts advocacy, with a special interest in media platforms for the arts. She is the Project Lead for ArtsEquator’s Southeast Asian Arts and Culture Censorship Documentation Project, launched in 2021. She has written extensively on censorship of arts and culture in Malaysia. She was a member of the International Programme Advisory Committee of the 8th World Summit on Arts and Culture, 2019.

1 thought on “Overstuffed: Martin McDonagh’s “The Pillowman” by Pangdemonium”

  1. I am always perplexed when a reviewer decides they know how a role should be performed as opposed to deciphering why the choice was made to portray it as it was. The irony here is if he could go watch the Broadway production and see the fantastic performance of the character of Ariel as exactly the character who is all histrionic bark with absolutely no bite behind it the character knows it and tries so hard to be a menace- it’s a funny, dark, brilliant performance that completely goes against the grain of expectation and this reviewers’ stereotypical view of what he thinks the character should be. If the reviewer misses that you wonder what else they missed…

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