Monday, 6 April 2009

Goodbye Pillowman.

Show's over, folks. Back again.

Please bear with me if I drift into hyperbole here, my words do little justice to the experience of the last couple of months.

Last Saturday evening saw the lights finally fade on an amazing show: the 23rd/MetroArts co-production of 'The Pillowman' by Martin McDonagh. Let's briefly kick off with him. What a fucking brilliant play, Mr McD.

Despite my sporadic forays into theatre over the past 20 years, I've been in more shows than one might think. Some have been professional, some not. Some have been transformational, others not so much. With the benefit of a few days remove, I can now quite objectively say that The Pillowman is quite possibly the best show ('soup to nuts') I've ever had the honour of being involved with. Here's why:

1. The production company. This is my third full show with 23rd Productions, and they just keep getting better and better. Kathryn Fray and Christopher Sommers are determined, dedicated people. Kath has a passion for theatre the size of a whale and it's matched only by Chris's awareness, understanding and drive. They have clear and defined goals. They want to make art with a purpose, but they understand the primary objective: to entertain. They are rare insofar as they are both artists who can switch effortlessly into business mode when necessary. If a person wanted an example of a Renaissance in this city's theatre industry, they need only be pointed in the direction of 23rd.

Special mention must be made of Amanda Bell, the Company Manager. Chances are if something goes splendidly well and you don't hear very much about it, you have Amanda to thank. She is the embodiment of the Quiet Achiever, working herself silly to make the production a success, but staying very firmly in the shadows. Y'know, I think Amanda Bell might actually be The Pillowman.

2. The director. Prior to this year 23rd had mounted two full productions: Closer in 2007 (directed by Mark Conaghan) and Motortown last year (directed by Shane Jones). Each time they managed to find the right person to steer the ship. The choice of Michelle Miall to direct The Pillowman was inspired. Michelle has created this sweet little beast of a play almost by sleight of hand.

From the very first rehearsals she went about her work with the most defined of ideas and the lightest of hearts. She had a clear and uncluttered (read: non-wanky) understanding of McDonagh's work. She never pushed or even cajoled her actors, she merely teased ideas and suggested different approaches when necessary. She was able to bring the separate elements together seamlessly when we stopped working scenes in isolation. She made us aware of our own choices as actors'. She never lost a mote of confidence in our ability to deliver what the play required when the time came. She cast the thing superbly. And she's just a really lovely human, which of course counts for plenty.

3. The creatives. From the simple but hugely effective set design by Amanda Karo right through to the amazing Danny Elfman-esque score by Chris Perren, everything clicked on The Pillowman. Jason Glenwright's LX design was as shocking as it was textured and beautiful, Chrispey McDougall's wardrobe choices managed to stay faithful to the idea that we were not only in a nebulous world, we lived in an unknown time and Louise (my darling Loolee) Gavin's hair artistry meshed perfectly with the indefinable 'place & time' of the piece.

4. The crew. Whitney Eglington is a first year uni student. This might lead you to believe she's still finding her feet. Well, she knows where her feet are, but I had trouble finding 'em. They are a blur! I've never seen a Stage Manager so committed to going up on time, and better still, turn around an interval so fast. That's completely forgetting her tech knowledge and calling of the show, which was just staggeringly good.

Apparently there are universities that frown on students doing work outside the course. While I understand and acknowledge the reasons for this, I'm quite confident that, were they witness to such a professional display, they might have second thoughts about this directive. Darling Tim 'Auntie Mary' Wallace really needs no praise from me. An absolute hero, pro, champion and ├╝ber-Mary. I love you. Gaby Zsolnai came to us in tech, and what a powerhouse performer. Piglet paint-mixing, blood-prep, prop-setting, everything done with an enthusiasm and minimum of fuss. In fact, Gaby's work speaks to the whole ethos of the production: enthusiasm...minimum of fuss. Thanks also to Dirk (The Prince of Dirkness) Hoult who jumped into the bump-out so we precious ones could prance about.

5. The critical response. Never in my life have I seen such an overwhelmingly positive reaction to a play. We all like to say that we don't care about the reviews, but we do. Who doesn't like to hear nice stuff being said about the work they are doing? I'm sure some people don't care, but we're talking about theatre people here...c'mon! Moreover, widely-read positive reviews can translate to much bigger houses than an indie production might normally expect, which in turn provides a company the chance to keep making good work. So to the reviewers, a big thank you.

6. The support from our industry. The Pillowman was 23rd's first co-production, so it would be remiss not to pay homage to the people at Metro Arts, The Pillowman's co-producer and a heavyweight supporter of independent theatre in Brisbane for many years. My first show at the Metro was in 1992, and I was far from the first person to walk that stage. Without the support of people like you, there'd be fewer productions in our town.

Equator-sized thanks to Jon Halpin for his input and support during the rehearsal process. I'm sure everyone felt slightly more emboldened (if a wee bit nervy, at first) knowing that Jon was in our corner. Thank you to the many industry leaders who made time in busy schedules to come and see The Pillowman. It's a huge confidence boost knowing you came.

7. The audience. 'No audience, no show'. You came in great number, you gripped your armrests, you pissed yourselves laughing, you cried, you showed up when it was raining, you shared your appreciation during and after the show. On a personal note, you reminded me in the best way what it's like to ride waves of laughter. You were fucking magnificent. Thank you.

8. The cast. Sigh. I guess I had to mention these fuckers eventually...hehe. What spectacular people these little pillows are. All with amazing pedigree and talent, all so driven to do the best work they can, all so much more 'credentialled' than I am. I don't really know where to start here...but off we go.

Chris Vernon. A darling of a human, talented beyond reasonable measure, captured a wondrous duality in Michal that was breathtaking. It's never easy playing 'the retard' (context, people). It's so easy to fall into the realm of parody or pastiche, but Chris made Michal human, inquisitive...and he allowed the audience to feel real compassion for a man who was ostensibly a murderer.

Emma Che Martin, Emma Pursey and Matty Filkins proved the rule that 'there's no such thing as a small role'. Each of them brought a great vivacity to their work which shone onstage. There were times, hiding in the hole in the wall watching 'The Little Jesus' story that I was so engrossed I nearly craned into view of the audience. They were note-perfect. Matty's slack jaw, Emma's bogan sneer & ciggie flick and Emma Che's..well, everything...often forced me to cover my mouth to keep from laughing.

Rob Thwaites is Motortown. He is, too. But he's just as much Pillowman as he is Motortown, and I've no doubt he'll be the next show he's in. Rob was my 'bad cop' partner in Pillowman and I couldn't have wished for more. He prepares so meticulously and is always striving for more. I love Robbie Thwaites as a man and an actor, and am very proud to have worked alongside him again. The cunt.

Finally...young master Steven Rooke. This is where I almost run out of words. Steve...makes me realise what I can (and should) be as an actor. He's a tireless professional, he's generous as all fuckery onstage and off, he's bursting with enthusiasm, he's a total sweetheart of a man and he's an amazing actor. If you need a cue, a hint, a 'pointer' on your path as an actor...look no further than Steven. I'm blessed to have shared a stage with him.

I feel blessed, full stop. The last few days have been boneless fatigue, but remembering the short distance back to the show fills me with something rare and special. This play has re-ignited a love for something I've always felt compelled to do. It's totally natural and understandable to dislike doing a job you hate, but when you feel the same about your passion...that's just plain weird and sad. The Pillowman (and everyone involved in it) has stoked the furnace in me. The support & encouragement I'm receiving from peers and colleagues to keep striving is gold dust to me. I'm back.