Rod Nicholls’ Pillowman: The Best Production I Never Saw

In February of last year, I arrived back in Cape Breton after 10 years away. The first evening home, I picked up a newspaper from my sister’s kitchen table and saw a publicity photo for the Boardmore Theatre’s production of The Pillowman. The play, a celebrated and controversial black comedy, was written by Martin McDonagh, perhaps the best British playwright of his generation. The cast was exciting: Todd Hiscock, Aaron Corbett, Mike McPhee and Gary Walsh. The director was Rod Nicholls. Once a year in our area there’s a theatre production that regular theatre goers can’t miss, and often enough it’s directed by Rod Nicholls. “I have to see this,” I said to my sister. “Good luck,” she replied. “That’s last week’s Post.”

the_pillowman

A couple of days later, I was chatting with a friend who had seen Nicholls’ production of The Pillowman. “It was the best play I ever saw at the Boardmore,” he gloatingly told me. It was an opinion I was to hear often in the following weeks, in various—but only slightly various—forms. “It was the best play I ever saw in Cape Breton,” one would say. “It was the best play I ever saw period,” another would say. Some were puzzled and disturbed by the dark material, but all raved about the production.

 

Beckett at the Boardmore

And almost two years later, people are still talking about Nicholls’ production of Pillowman. Recently, I met two talented Sydney theater people, James F. W. Thompson and Erin Thompson. As we talked local theater, they each volunteered their opinion of it: “Pillowman was the best play ever,” declared Erin Thompson. James Thompson was in agreement. “I loved it. It was dark but really beautiful. The best overall production I ever saw.”

In 2004, I did get to see a play directed by Nicholls, a one-act by Samuel Beckett called Play, and allow me to gloat if you missed it. As the production begins, the audience sees three urns, a head protruding from each, faces just discernible on the dark stage. A man and two women take turns recounting the banal events of an adulterous love affair. Each speaks only when the spotlight shines on his or her face. When they’re finished, the play is repeated, word for word, at a faster tempo. I loved it. I left the theater in that light-headed, quietly exhilarated state the best theater produces in me. I didn’t want to speak, and I didn’t want anyone else to. Though, to be honest, I do remember immediately blurting out to my companion, “Wasn’t that great?”

The Pillowman, Boardmore Theatre, CBU

Mike McPhee (foreground), Carrie MacDonald (background left) and Rachael Murphy (background right), in the Boardmore Theatre’s production of The Pillowman.

A few years after Play, Nicholls, continuing in top form, did another Beckett piece at the Boardmore Annual Festival of Plays, Krapp’s Last Tape. For the solo performance, Nicholls had one of our best actors, Gary Walsh, as Krapp. In the two-minute promotional video available online, you can see what a great actor can do with a great script. With just a nod of his head or a lifting of his eyes, Walsh can make an audience’s eyes tear up. In 2014, the play was taken to the Liverpool International Theatre Festival, where it won four awards: best director, best actor, best visual presentation and outstanding Canadian production.

Nicholls has directed many modern classics by dramatists like Bertolt Brecht and Albert Camus, but Beckett is a special favorite of his. “I fell in love with the short Beckett plays,” he says. It’s an admiration he shared with Liz Boardmore, who considered Beckett the greatest playwright of the 20th century. Her chosen motto for the university theater was Beckett’s now famous, “Fail again. Fail better.” It’s a sentiment that provides necessary perspective for theater practitioners, though Nicholls has been succeeding again and again, and better and better in recent years.

Rod Nicholls

Rod Nicholls

I met up with Nicholls over coffee at CBU, where he teaches philosophy. He started directing plays there for the Boardmore in the eighties. Liz Boardmore was a mentor and he learned a lot from her. He speaks fondly of the way Liz could lightly criticize something in a production that wasn’t up to standard. The remark, however gently delivered, would sting at first but eventually, after some reflection, it usually turned out to be correct, and was always instructive. As Nicholls says, “You knew her heart was in the right place. With the Boardmores, it was about developing taste and standards.” Nicholls, an educator, is a strong believer in the need for informed criticism, even if it sometimes stings, and for always raising the standards of local theater.

As a theater practitioner, Nicholls speaks with enthusiasm about the technical challenges certain plays present for directors—and he likes a challenge. But Nicholls emphasizes that theater is a collaboration. Play, for example, is a short piece but has well over a hundred lighting cues. “So for the performers, the cues weren’t coming from another actor, but from a light going on and off. The actors could not lose their place, because they were responding to a light.” Without another actor to cover for them, the performers were on their own. This kind of unforgiving technical rigor requires talented and dedicated actors and, Nicholls believes, brings out the best in them. “The high degree of difficulty makes the actors’ performances more visceral, and the audience sees that.”

Pillowman was a really challenging play to do,” Nicholls recalls happily. “It’s meta-theater, theater about theater, that questions art that uses violence, yet tells the worst, most horrible stories. And not only stories of gross violence, but story after story, for over three hours.” Given that two hours in a theater can be a very long time for today’s audiences, I said that I saw the challenge. “But the most obvious difficulty with Pillowman from a director’s point of view,” he continues, “Is that it’s like two plays in one. There are the conventional scenes in a prison cell and also the dream-like sequences of stories that need to be performed.”

There are two points, I notice, to which Nicholls keeps returning in our conversation: the technical challenges that inspire him and the collaborative nature of theater. He’s generous and he respects the talents and ingenuity of his colleagues. For Pillowman, Nicholls saw clearly what the directorial problem was, but he’s quick to credit the design solution to Boardmore Theatre director Todd Hiscock (who’s famous in Cape Breton theater circles for his insightful suggestions, from slight to major, which have made all the difference for innumerable productions).

“Todd came up with the idea to use projection mapping.” Now, the very tough transitions from the prison cell to the “weird, grotesque fairy tales” became simple by projecting a “fairy house image. Conceptually, as well, a fairy tale house made sense. And with the projection mapping it could immediately disappear and again become a prison.”

And what it all added up to was a seamless production of a difficult and important play and one of the most exciting theater productions here in years. Nicholls knows how to combine his own exceptional theater talent with all the resources and talent the Boardmore Theatre has gathered and developed over its nearly five decades.

I really don’t want to miss his next play.

 

 

Ken Jessome

 

Arts reporter Ken Jessome was born and raised in Whitney Pier. His first play, The Little Darling, was directed for the Boardmore festival by Liz Boardmore and his last, the full-length Rabbits and Blueberries, appeared at the Boardmore and the Atlantic Canada Theatre Festival. He’s currently working on a one-act called The Girl Out Back.

 

 

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