My third West End theatre trip in a month, was to see the West End revival of this play by McDonagh – he of wonderful movies: In Bruges, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and The Banshees of Inisherin (which I loved, but forgot to review) and also partner of Phoebe Waller-Bridge – and I had high expectations. Before he turned to the big screen, McDonagh wrote a handful of plays and The Pillowman is regarded by many as his best, first being performed in 2003 at the National Theatre, with David Tennant in the role of Katurian, a writer.
I deliberately didn’t read up on the play before I went, just drawn by the star casting of Lily Allen as Katurian, and Steve Pemberton as Tupolski. Had I known it’s themes, I might have given it a miss – and it was notable that there were some empty seats after the interval. I have not walked out of a play ever, (although I came close with The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus by Tony Harrison which, despite an excellent cast, had too many satyr phalluses for comfort!). But back to The Pillowman – I was surprised not to see trigger warnings posted about this play.
*** Trigger warning – child torture. Also slight Spoiler warning following ***
There are four main characters in the play which is, natch, set in a totalitarian state. Katurian is a writer of short stories, almost all of which involve violence being done to children. She (in Allen’s case) is arrested as two children have been murdered by methods detailed in her stories. She is brought in for questioning by the two detectives, Tupolski (Pemberton) and Ariel (Paul Kaye) as good and bad cops respectively, although their positions rather reverse later. When she discovers her mentally disabled brother Michal has confessed to the murders, she knows she’ll be executed, but is desperate to preserve her stories.
As the play progresses, we not only hear some of the stories, which are enacted in mime, as Katurian narrates from the side of the stage, by actors playing mother, father and child, but we also discover the root of the stories in Katurian and MIchal’s own childhood as their parents carred out a gruesome experiment on them when they were little. If the autobiographical story of young Katurian and Michal was profoundly disturbing, Katurian’s story of ‘Little Jesus’ was particularly affecting, the eleven-year-old child actor playing the girl who believed she was Jesus was amazing, even as she was crucified and then buried alive. ‘The Pillowman’ of the title is another of Katurian’s stories, which she tells to Michal in the cells, and it’s premise, which I won’t spoil, is equally disturbing and thought-provoking. All the stories have that horror element that goes back to the Brothers Grimm, but is twisted yet further into torture.
*** End of alert ***
This was a hard play to get any enjoyment from. Yes, there were comic lines, yet I didn’t really laugh at them, overcome by the grimness of the overall subject and, as you’d expect from the creator of In Bruges, there was a large amount of swearing! Pemberton and Kaye were both excellent – the latter in particular. I hadn’t thought that Paul Kaye as Ariel, played with a distinctly seedy demeanour, could present such a physical presence, he’s bigger than I remember him from Mr Wormwood in the RSC’s original Matilda cast, but Lily Allen (with blonde bob) is very slight in comparison physically. I found her to be OK, but occasionally shrill and there was too much hand-flapping. Also her narration of the stories was so deadpan – although that may have been a deliberate choice. Imagining Tennant as Katurian, and having seen him in a revival of Good by CP Taylor last autumn I think he would have been wonderful and verbally more lively, (btw, Jim Broadbent was Tupolski to his Katurian in the original production). Plaudits go to the two child actors (in a rotating cast of three pairs) who were excellent – I really hope their mental health is being looked after.
Ironically, I think that if The Pillowman had been a novel, I would have ‘enjoyed’ it more, having more time to reflect on what McDonagh is rather bludgeoning into us over two and a bit hours about the often unresolved darkness in fairy tales, and of course, the suppression of creativity and freedom of expression for political ends. The programme contained some interesting articles about PEN International who campaign for ‘promoting literature and defending freedom of expression worldwide’ and a piece by Ukrainian author Andrey Kurkov too.
The Pillowman is at the Duke of York’s Theatre until mid-August.
BUY the script from Blackwell’s via my affiliate link (free UK P&P)