‘The Pillowman’ review

Lyric Theatre

24 March- 16 April

‘The Pillowman’ is not a frivolous night at the theatre. It is dark, thought-provoking, intense, and at times difficult material, yet utterly compelling, and infused with a black humour throughout that prevents the experience from being as depressing as it could be.

Unfortunately-named writer Katurian K Katurian finds himself arrested and interrogated in a totalitarian state by detectives Ariel and Tupolski over the content of his stories, the majority of which involve children meeting with horrible fates. It soon emerges that real-life children have recently been murdered in a fashion mirroring Katurian’s tales, and he must attempt to prove his innocence, either of direct involvement, or of complicity in the sense of creating dangerous art capable of influencing a killer. Meanwhile, his brother Michal may or may not be undergoing torture in the next room.

The first thing to be said about this play is that the production is stunning. The set grabs the eye and holds it before the lights have even gone down for the show to begin, a magnificent towering cell with cracked walls and austere furniture, and a safe that comes into play later. Here we remain for a considerable period of time both at the beginning and near the end of the play. But it gets even better. In the second scene, and again at subsequent intervals, Katurian is illuminated front of stage as a storyteller, while behind him, the walls of the cell separate to reveal a bedroom and adjacent room, and later a forest scene complete with underground space for one particularly unsettling character fate. As Katurian narrates, supporting actors play out the stories he tells, at certain points lip syncing with him to spine tingling, and in one instance humorous, effect. It is fantastic, arresting staging and design, and all but steals the show from the performers themselves.

Not that the acting remotely disappoints. Peter Campion as Katurian is extraordinary: a fearful wreck one minute, a caring brother the next, a haunted artist the next. His eyes, wild and anxious, are among the most expressive I’ve ever seen on stage, and his ability to conjure emotion, particularly in the scenes with Michal, never fails to compel. Michael Ford-Fitzgerald throws himself wholly into the role of the writer’s ‘slow’ brother, in everything from physicality to speech to surprisingly complex character, veering from sympathetic and tragic to unnerving and sinister and back again in mere moments. Of the detectives, David McSavage fares better as Tupolski, his ‘good cop’ given better lines and more subtlety, culminating in a simple, yet powerfully effective revelation towards play’s end. Gary Lydon is given a less three dimensional character in Ariel, but does his best with it, finding nuances in the character through his performance in the final scene.

Although unspeaking (save for one instance), the story actors are every bit as deserving of praise as the four leads, Jarlath Tivnan in particular wonderfully expressive as the young Katurian, while of all the silent performers, Rosa Makela gets the most to do, and shines in those select moments.

Praise must go to Andrew Flynn as director for these ‘stories within the story’. They are, I would argue, the best sequences in the production, and it is to the play’s credit that that is not to take away from the ‘A’ story in any way. Campion as storyteller is placed as close to the audience as the stage allows him, creating a greater sense of intimacy, while behind and above him, the results of his dark imagination (or in some cases chilling reflections of truth) play out in perfect synchronicity and brilliantly economic performances. I would argue the case for seeing the play purely for these sequences alone, although certain scenes in the cell, chiefly the finale involving fire and a shooting, come close to competing.

The script is laced throughout with pitch black humour, evoking many, many laughs from the audience, even as the most horrifying information and twists are busy unraveling. It keeps things from ever feeling so dark as to utterly depress, which given the weight of the material is no mean feat. There are obviously parallels to be drawn with real life and history in the predicament of a writer in trouble with the state, but the play is more subtle than that, giving us genuine moral dilemmas to grapple with- Katurian represents free speech, yes, but the detectives continually remind us that children have been murdered, whether directly or indirectly as a result of the writer’s stories, and it certainly feels at times like there is a limit to how far Katurian can defend his often morbid fiction. This certainly ties in with recent tragic events- what is an acceptable limit in free speech, and is anything ever too distasteful to merit banning or curtailing? It’s presented in pleasingly gray shades here, and provides much food for thought long after the show has finished.

On a side note, many of Katurian’s stories are wonderful little pieces of fiction in their own right (with one involving a twist relating to a classic tale my personal favourite), and enhance the play whenever one is read out or performed to us. Grim they may be, but they are certainly clever, writer Martin McDonagh deserving credit for using fables that would be enjoyable in their own right to enhance the wider play- the titular Pillowman, meanwhile, is a deeply poignant, tragic figure in one of these stories.

‘The Pillowman’ is a rich, thought-provoking, at times challenging piece of work, well-deserving of its run until mid April. See it for the fantastic set, impressive direction, excellent central performance, and the promise of being left with plenty to think about. One unfortunate incident during the first scene saw a disrespectful member of the audience leave the theatre, audibly announcing how little he was enjoying it. It was entirely his loss.

Script ****
Performances ****
Production *****

Christopher Moore.


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