In a next-to-empty stage at Chapel off Chapel, besides the stream of audience members that come filtering through, sits a man with his wrists bound, an a cloth bag over his head. It’s a confronting image to begin a play with — but in that sense, fitting foreshadowing of what’s ahead. In their staging of Irish playwright Martin McDonagh’s ‘The Pillowman’, the Patalog Collective pull off an impressive second entry into the Melbourne theatre scene.

Depicting the arrest and interrogation of a short story writer and his mentally slow brother in a totalitarian state, for their suspected connection to a series of gruesome child murders, there’s many a place where the play could easily slip up — for example, in the depiction of said brother, the dated racist (if not character-appropriate remarks), or in the general niche humour and wordiness overall — but in director Attanasio’s deft hands and clear vision, it doesn’t.

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Instead, viewers can expect all the flint and gut punches of McDonagh’s heavy dialogue and concept, delivered as capably and as uncompromisingly as one would hope for. (As an addendum, with Patalog having previously staged Jez Butterworth’s ‘Mojo’, this particular reviewer wonders if they’ve developed a taste and aptitude for theatre’s more brutal offerings.)

Asides from a case of opening night nerves which turn both some technical and performance elements shaky, there’s little to fault. As short story writer Katurian, Ben Walter has the challenging task of occupying the stage at nearly every moment in varying and always overlapping states of despair, hopelessness, and hope. It’s a challenging and textured portrait of a man one wouldn’t usually empathise with, that’s accented by the Patalog Collective’s clever use of sound and light design and Walter’s disturbingly direst delivery of Katurian’s twisted stories, and to both his and McDonagh’s credit, it’s difficult to fully determine how one feels about his character by the end of the night.

Good cop (Tom Jones as Tupolski) and bad cop (Mark Yates as Ariel) duo are on par with Walter’s ability to command the stage, with the former particularly at home in his role as smooth-talking, disaffected, slick-suited lead detective. The latter is more at home in Ariel’s quieter moments than in playing the higher-strung notes McDonagh’s play, although it’s safe to assume that a couple more runs will afford him a greater level of comfort. Equally, the use of Lexi Kaisall is a little jarring: having previously commanded attention with little more than her chilling physical presence, it seems a shame to let her let the air out in a different role.

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Regardless of minor missteps, it’s clear that the Patalog Collective are beginning to find a nice stride and confidence. It’ll be interesting to see what they offer the theatrical world next — and what that means for their oeuvre.

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