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Mask Theatre: going deep, going dark…

This spring, Mask is bringing two productions to the stage: Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman, directed by Helen McCay, and David Harrower’s Blackbird, directed by Matthew Clift. Both plays have a dark outlook to them. The Moment asked the directors what made them choose these plays...

Helen McCay: When I tell anyone I am directing The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh I get one of two reactions; ‘Ooh I love that play’ or ‘Oh. (Uncomfortable pause as they have no clue what I’m talking about) What’s it about?’

I could count the number of people who have given the first reaction on one hand, which means I usually then have to try to explain a very dark, complex and exciting play in thirty words. It goes something like this: ‘A writer is arrested because there are children being murdered in the town that he lives in, and they’re being murdered in the way that mimics the way children die in his stories’. This is, in fact, the most basic way I could ever describe The Pillowman. It was my new year’s resolution over a year ago to read a new play every month and, I can honestly say, for every five that I read, I get one play that I would consider putting forward for a production. The Pillowman was at the top of that list.

Yes, it’s dark; it has a lot of swearing, violence, and, let’s face it, the main plotline is about children being murdered. But, like all good works of art, it is so much more than the thirty-word summary. One of the reasons I am so excited about directing The Pillowman is that it manages to explore a range of themes; freedom, human rights, power, family. You get to the end of play wanting to question why what happened, happened. Could someone have done something differently at any point to change it? The characters’ histories play a large part in how they act and react to the situations as they are presented with them. If you’re looking for a lighthearted comedy, this is definitely not the play for you.

While McDonagh manages to keep The Pillowman quite light given the subject matter (you will laugh, and then feel guilty for it), this is an engaging, thoughtful and provocative piece of theatre.

Matthew Clift: David Harrower’s play is one that has always fascinated me. I first saw it at a theatre festival and as the play unfolded I became, like everybody else in the audience, captivated. The intensity and reality of the performances were so strong and to take a subject matter of some controversy and make it accessible and entertaining was no mean feat.

The play looks at a relationship that occurred in the past. Ray and Una met fifteen years earlier and embarked on a disastrous affair when Ray was in his forties and Una was just a teenager. Clearly wanting some answers or even ‘closure’, Una has tracked down Ray, who now lives under a new identity. She comes to his work and their confrontation takes place in the common room for employees, full of litter and disregarded food. In one unbroken ninety minutes, their history comes pouring out.

What Harrower does brilliantly is not offer a moral point of view but rather the ‘facts’ and asks the audience to make up their mind. It’s a play that encourages thought and even debate and the ending leaves a big question for the audience to try and answer. It is a huge acting challenge for the two performers who take it on but, having worked with Mask on last summer’s production of Much Ado About Nothing, I know how talented a group they are and that the actors we have are more than capable to do it justice. This was even more apparent after I led a rehearsed reading with Mask performers and was blown away by their diversity, integrity and passion. I knew then that I had found a home for Blackbird and an opportunity for me to finally direct it.

John Clare Theatre Wednesday
15 to Saturday 18 March

The Pillowman
Key Studio Tuesday
28 March to Saturday 1 April


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