You would be hard pressed to find a comedy blacker than Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman. It is a world in which brutal police interrogation precedes talk of itchy arses. Police interrogators squabble over whether or not to put the electrodes on. Extremes of innocence are pushed to extremes.
The main character of the story at first seems to be one that we’ve seen before – a writer, the surreally named Katurian Katurian Katurian (could the “K” winkingly refer to Kafka’s Joseph K?) – is interrogated for crimes that he did not commit. At first, we assume that Katurian’s interrogation is politically-motivated; however, in the first plot-twist of many, we soon realise that Katurian’s alleged crimes are so grave that they appal even the accusers.
The plots of his macabre children’s stories – tales that could, as one interrogator remarks, easily be titled “101 ways to skewer a five year-old” – have been carried out in reality. Katurian’s brother, whose mental handicap stems from years of “artistically-inspired” torture at the hands of his parents, is implicated.
A great advertisement for gender-blind casting, Claire Bowman’s performance as Katurian was highly nuanced. She brilliantly highlighted Katurian’s arrogance and pride in his own stories, showing his inability to resist the urge to answer back. A gifted story-teller, Bowman held all captive as she strode the stage as the eponymous Pillowman. Her depiction, moreover, of Katurian’s gradual self-realisation was truly spine-tingling.
Most touching was the relationship between Katurian and his brother, Michael. As Michael, Emma D’Arcy’s performance was nothing short of virtuosic. At first, her literalistic reading of the character’s handicap made me feel slightly uneasy. Was it tasteful? Would it lapse into unfunny and unpleasant parody? However, as the play progressed, the D’Arcy’s immense sensitivity in the role quickly became apparent.
Her depiction of Michael’s youthful innocence brilliantly highlighted Katurian’s own hypocrisies and made me question the extent to which Michael is the one who feels the biggest scars of his parents’ torture.
There were superb performances by Dominic Applewhite as the wise-cracking Tupolski and Jonathan Purkiss as his thuggish partner Ariel. Although his queues in the second half weren’t as sharp as they might have been, Applewhite’s quick-fire delivery drew the biggest laughs. Purkiss shone in Act 2 as we saw Ariel’s softer side.
Director Thomas Bailey’s vision for the world of The Pillowman was realised by the fantastic sets of Joel Scott-Halkes. Whilst they made full use of the Playhouse stage, his sets never distracted from the action. He added – literally – a new dimension to the play: at key moments, the back wall of the cramped, interrogation room gave way to an eerie forest scene. Never gimmicky, the restraint with which this was deployed only served to maximise its impact, never impinging on the play’s claustrophobia.
Riddled with reveals and unexpected turns, it seems that Katurian is not the only one who loves telling stories. This production was of a near West-End level of professionalism that highlighted the brilliance of McDonagh’s writing. I recommend it without reservation.
The Pillowman is playing at The Oxford Playhouse until 1st November