The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh
is an award-winning drama that offers a disturbing insight into what is regarded as the cutting edge in the world of British and American theatre. It is a haunting, elusive, often beguiling story that reflects the triumph of post-modern irony and ambiguity.
The play takes us into a police station in a vaguely drawn totalitarian state where a pair of comical detectives interrogate and torture a writer whose stories seem to be inspiring a macabre series of child murders.
The main storyline is punctuated by readings and enactments of the writer's work and these interludes spiral into a sequence of self-referential loops that make it impossible to distinguish between reality and fiction.
Even the detectives are drawn into the orgy of storytelling and at times the interrogation room resembles a creative writing workshop, if you can imagine the kind of workshop the Marquis de Sade might have conducted during his confinement in the Charenton asylum.
On one level this all makes for an entertaining evening. The dialogue is appallingly funny and McDonagh's writing is wildly inventive with unexpected twists and turns that maintain an engaging framework of suspense.
The production design shows great subtlety and director Simon Prast has assembled a superb cast who convincingly animate and humanise the play's bizarre collection of damaged souls.
Craig Parker is particularly impressive in the role of the writer Katurian. By showing tenderness towards his retarded brother and an unswerving belief in the value of his writing Parker somehow elicits sympathy for what should be a thoroughly odious character.
Jonathan Hardy and Michael Hurst brilliantly carry off the grim humour of their good-cop-bad-cop routine while revealing surprising layers of complexity in their characters.
But for all its seductive charms the play itself struck me as hollow and ineffectual.
McDonagh's writing harks back to the early modernist who believed nothing was more important than shocking the sensibilities of the bourgeoisie but in a permissive era the need to be outrageous takes on an adolescent quality.
The play's most graphic depiction of violence - the enactment of a child's crucifixion - is infused with a heavy dose of black humour that seems almost entirely gratuitous. At a time when New Zealand is being forced to confront the hideous reality of child murder it is profoundly unsettling to see this kind of material transformed into a frightfully clever postmodern fable.