Aotu Theatre’s The Pillowman
J: The ease with which McDonagh’s vague police state in The Pillowman was re-contextualised into the setting of communist China was pretty startling, and probably one of the strongest choices made in Aotu Theatre’s production. A legitimate, contextually appropriate police state? Check. A history of police brutality, false accusations, and silencing of artistic expression? Check. Effective, culturally meaningful and politically significant gender-swapping? Check.
A: Aotu really made the re-contextualisation work for them. One has only to look at the glossy, khaki green, red-starred programs to see how far they have run with this decision. We walked in and I think the pre-show soundscape was traditional PRC chants. This move to contextualise McDonagh’s play in a very recent but intense political and cultural setting came with the interesting decision to gender-swap Mao Dun’s (Katurian’s) brother (Michal) for a sister (Mao Mao). Given the horrific and inequitable circumstances of their upbringing – with the male heir’s success taking top priority over the female’s safety – Aotu’s decision to make the more victimised child a girl becomes very loaded.
J: In literalising McDonagh’s totalitarian dictatorship and grounding it against a very real backdrop, The Pillowman was made anew and given contemporary relevance in a much more overt way than the script intended, but it worked. It’s also done against one of very few literal political settings that fits – there’s no shying away from what they’re saying with this choice, and it kind of delights me that they’ve chosen it.
A: It’s really interesting to note that Aotu hits very little of McDonagh’s black humour, and instead went for a very dramatic, even melodramatic, performance. While people who have previously experienced McDonagh might feel jarred by this, it was oddly appropriate for the direction that the show was going in.
However I certainly think that this change in style did a lot of justice to the in-play stories like The Little Green Pig, The Pillowman, etc. I was really moved by them.
J: It’s pretty difficult to go wrong with McDonagh – the writing just sets a really strong foundation to build an interesting production. Ironically, I think my favourite thing about it was probably the array of non-naturalistic inserts into the otherwise naturalistic, text-heavy script. Not all of their choices paid off – the use of helium balloons hovering above the heads of the ensemble was probably funnier than intended, but the eureka moment of recognising them as the 9 feet tall Pillowman made that choice feel quite inspired.
The dance interludes were also an interesting addition to the dialogue-heavy play. The abstracted physicalisation of the siblings’ journey felt quite profound when the penny finally dropped halfway through the dance. It was, in many ways, quite beautiful. The relationship between the writer and his sister is – has always been – a violent, tumultuous dance. Why shouldn’t the tension and angst between them emerge as a literal, visible one?
A: At first I was really put off by the dancing. I was very critical about it. However your point is right. Aotu made bold representational decisions and took risks and that in itself is worth applauding.
I really had trouble with some of the acting. It often lapsed into melodrama. When Detective Wang paced back and forth with one expression and exaggeratedly brought a fist down on the table, or when Zhang cried for his dead son, took his glasses off, wiped his eyes and put his glasses back on again – these are examples of where the actions became robotic. I think this was because the characters motivations weren’t explored thoroughly enough.
J: The acting could’ve been more subtle, in general, yeah. Overall, it could also have flowed more smoothly and swiftly – a few scene changes felt sluggish, and the shifts between the scripted scenes and devised actions could’ve been much more deftly handled. On the whole though, I was very curious about what direction the show would take and was really engaged the whole time.
Jeanette Tong and Anthony Kuiper
Aotu Theatre’s production of The Pillowman is playing at the Open Stage, Swanston 757, at the University of Melbourne from July 29th to August 8th. Tickets available here.
Photography: Rick Yang