Queen's Criticises

Queen's University drama studies students review two plays by Northern Irish writers

In the first of our 'Queen's Criticises' series, we collaborate with Queen's University's drama department to publish two theatre reviews by drama studies students Abby Judd and John Shayegh, selected from a class of twenty by lecturer Mark Phelan and web editor Lee Henry.

Here, Judd reviews a student production of Martin McDonagh's play The Pillowman whilst John Shayegh reviews a Jigsaw Theatre Company production of Rosemary Jenkinson's Johnny Meister and the Stitch.

The Pillowman - Review by Abby Judd

Questioning the limits of freedom of expression when it intrudes on the rights of others, Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman is a magnificent black comedy, which the students of Queen’s University have chillingly remastered in our age of political correctness.

Once upon a time there lived a writer named Katurian K Katurian, whose work was more macabre than the original manuscripts of the Brothers Grimm. In his fairy tales, children always strayed from the path, but unfortunately were never given the grace of a woodcutter’s appearance to slay the nightmarish peril they confronted in the deep dark woods.

For years Katurian’s work is passed off as the fantasies of a perverted mind, until the bodies of two children are discovered, both murdered in ways that correlate with the descriptions in his stories. With the disappearance of a third young girl the police arrest the writer and his mentally disabled brother, Michal, in the hope of finding some answers.

Through her multimedia direction whereby projected film clips add to the performance, first time director Helen Donnelly captures the contrast between the bleak reality of McDonagh's 'totalitarian dictatorship' on one hand, and the surreal imagination of Katurian on the other.

McGlinchey’s simplistic set consists of two gigantic grey filling cabinets, which loom ominously over Katurian, who sits slouched over a table between two police officers. The scenes constantly switch back and forth between Katurian’s interrogation and his fables, which the police read aloud in the hope of finding clues.

During the narration of Katurian’s work, the stories are illustrated in filmed skits projected onto three screens suspended above the stage. The heightened saturation and sepia tones of these films contrast with the drabness of the set, illustrating the sinister labyrinth of Katurian’s mind.

McDonagh asks powerful questions regarding artistic expression. Katurian’s stories are gruesome, involving the mutilation and murder of young children. Over the past few years our society has become more aware of episodes of violence towards children, two prominent examples being the death of Baby P and the disappearance of Madeleine McCann. We have become desensitized to such episodes.

This brings into question whether or not the media is teaching us to accept violence as an ordinary way of life? How liberal should the distribution of such horrific material - whether it be Katurian’s writing or violent horror movies - be? Should artists be held responsible for the actions of others?

The drama students of Queen’s University have developed a remarkably relevant and visually stimulating production. Its relevance to contemporary issues makes it a truly haunting interpretation. As Katurian’s work is stored away in his case-file the audience is left to wonder, will these tales resurface, and if they do, will there be more victims?

Johnny Meister and the Stitch - Review by John Shayegh

A black room, two black boxes, an empty bottle of cider and a sharp take on today's youth culture. Johnny Meister and The Stitch is a witty and refreshingly honest look at the lives of two tracksuit-wearing teens of the type that would make old ladies cross to the other side of the street.

The play consists of two monologues in which each character narrates the events of his day with a sarcastic self-reflective tone. As more information is gleaned from these two miscreants you come to the conclusion that home is where the heart dies.

We are first introduced to Johnny Meister (John Travers), a teen epitomising the social problems in our society - a young lad with no family bond in his life. Meister's references to the 'sand-niggers' that he and his friends encounter brings into question where these bigoted views come from, whether the class divide brings with it intrinsic xenophobia and if our educational and cultural systems are failing to teach awareness and acceptance.

Meister moves at break-neck speed - with precision and humour through his daily routine - and there is an undeniable charm in the honesty of Travers's portrayal of the character. The drink and drugs Meister consumes surge him ever forward, leading to episodes of violence on the street when he decides to 'bounce in just for the rush'.

In this Jigsaw Theatre Company production, writer Rosemary Jenkinson adds to the current debate surrounding the seriousness of our binge drinking culture and the violence associated with it. In Johnny Meister and The Stitch Jenkinson explores one of the reasons for this violent culture - the disillusion of working-class youths and the dislocation between classes.

The anger and depression that Johnny feels stems from living in an estate with a single mother who takes drugs, cuts herself, and cares little about her son's activities. Such an existence, coupled with the lack of governmental reform to rescue families from under society's rug, is why Meister involves himself in delinquency.

Next we meet Stitch (Brian Markey), a young man older than Meister by a few years with no home or family in his life. He is the more developed of the two characters. There is an ironic intellectualism about Stitch. He delights and amuses the audience over the philosophical quandaries of his condition and social position.

At one point he considers the protestant/catholic divide, explaining his frustration with what he sees as the media's catholic bias. His reflective nature leads him to the conclusion that in the sectarian divide they have 'no dialogue', and to bring about change 'we need more dialogue, don't we?'. His musings culminate in his conclusion that 'we are our own Gods, our own Devils'. At times he is movingly ashamed at his own 'paltry concerns'.

With such a minimal set, director Paul Kennedy relys on his actors to suggest setting, and both Travers and Markey convey his ideas with compelling energy. You come to accept these misfits 'warts and all', and yearn for the social reform that is needed for real change, lest the poor populace retain what Johnny feels in himself, 'a wee fracture that'll never go away'.