For all that can be said about The Pillowman, nobody can say it doesn’t try. Over two hours of complex plot (to a degree that some might call gratuitous), and with dialogue that occasionally buckles under its own overwritten weight, lends the play the uneasy attitude of the try-hard. This was, when written in 2003, the first of Martin McDonagh’s plays not to be set in Ireland, but the familiarly droll black humour twisted up with the macabre that has become his calling card is fully displayed here. More so than ever before, though, he determinedly chucks theme after theme at the wall – inevitably, despite the occasional misstep and if only through persistance, a fair few of them manage to stick.
In some unnamed totalitarian regime (never specifically given a name or location, but the implication is somewhere in Eastern Europe) a writer (Nick Medhurst) is interrogated by two policemen over the similarities between his stories and a recent spate of child murders. In a clear and deliberate homage to Kafka’s Josef K, the writer is named Katurian; in a clear and deliberate attempt at getting a few laughs and establishing the writer as somewhat of a bumbling cabbage head, it’s revealed his parents gave him the full name of Katurian Katurian Katurian. Of the two hundred-odd short stories that the police find in his home only two lack some kind of murder or mutilation of a child, and it is this that fascinates the detective and his sergeant; it is revealed early on that Katurian’s mentally ill brother, Michal (John Franklin), is the prime suspect in their investigation.
Ariel (Ollie Silver) is a violent and psycopathic officer of his own law. Silver’s mannerisms could be said to be overly exaggerated and extreme (almost to the point of pantomime), but his enthusiasm for the role and his genuinely frightening, violent way of movement (with clenched fists and rippling arms there was a huge impression of some coiled menace) eventually overrode any doubts – there’s a simplicity in Ariel’s anger that gives him an integrity that his superior Detective Tupolski (Adam Wood) lacks. Tupolski is open about the cliché that is his relationship with Ariel – their ‘good cop/bad cop’ routine is oiled and smooth, and he’s keen to make Katurian realise that the system they find themselves in has little trouble disappearing those who fail to cooperate. HIs methods of interrogation are far more casual and mental – he knows that he has the best hand, and Wood’s cocky, brash take on the character emphasises the man’s ego; the smug way he recounts his own attempt at a short story made me want to stride forward and clobber the man about the face with my shoe.
Between the interrogations come scenes where Katurian’s stories are reenacted, in almost static tableaux, narrated by their author. It’s in these that McNamee’s direction is most evident, and The Pillowman is a play that requires specifically tight direction; it’s been somewhat infamously associated with audience members leaving at the interval due to the subject matter (mutilation of children) and the physical violence (during the performance I attended, Katurian’s fresh black eye wasn’t faked), and this controlled rage and sadness that underlies the interrogation scenes was most noticeable when it was absent. Against a drab, black set (with only flakes of red on the walls) the brighter lighting setup did a fair job of affecting the atmosphere, but the supporting cast did themselves good in their roles – the highlight being the ratcheting sadism of ‘The Little Jesus’, a tale of a little girl tortured by foster parents for daring to believe herself to be the second coming of Christ, tortured by essentially granting her wish to be, “just like Jesus.”
In one of his best performances at the New Theatre (second, I reckon, only to his role as The Maniac in Accidental Death of an Anarchist last semester), Nick Medhurst’s Katurian is a deferrent, submissive wreck. He’s an actor capable of switching from the comic to the serious with only the subtlest of actions and affectations, and there’s something in his voice that carries across the sense of a writer who desperately feels that his dignity is at stake; perhaps it was unintentional, but the noticeable quiver that crept in when Ariel threatened to destroy Katurian’s work was felt most acutely seeing as it immediately followed a scene where it was absent, during the writer’s reconciliation with his brother over their abusive past. Perhaps Katurian should be condemned, above all, for vanity? His redemption, if you can call it that, is loose and literary – McDonagh looks like he’s trying to say something grand about literature as a social force, but it comes across as something cloudier, more obtuse.
At first glance, The Pillowman seems a play that wants to talk about the responsibility that a writer has to his society – Michal, it transpires, was tortured by his parents in the hope that his screams, and the emotional trauma that followed, would inspire Katurian to become a great artist (and Katurian does indeed take inspiration from his own life in his only autobiographical story, ‘The Writer and the Writer’s Brother’). There’s this idea that art, and literature, are great things in of themselves and that they justify their negative influences by some kind of inherent worth, and it seems we’re asked to sympathise with a man who, as the two policemen point out, has an obsession with dying children that would be considered extraordinarily sick and vile by most people. There are other topics that float around – the hysterical responses in the media to dead children, the justification for torturing prisoners, the bonds of brotherhood, the nasty treatment by some of the mentally disabled – but the main thing that The Pillowman deals with is pain, and the chance that art might be an escape from it. The title of the play itself comes from one of Katurian’s stories, about a fluffy, gentle man given the terrible task of visiting people who commit suicide when they are still naive children and attempting to convince them to kill themselves before they have to go through a life of overwhelming pain; and like this man made of pillows, Katurian is condemned to repeat the torture of his brother through writing his stories, and perhaps their surviving, even if their author doesn’t, could constitute some kind of fresh start for his family.
There are also the undercurrents that are critical of the totalitarian regime, despite Katurian’s protest that he never did any kind of, “anti-state thing”; I doubt it was McDonagh’s primary intention, but the play can equally be seen as a passionate defence of the power of freedom of speech and property to allow people to outlive their own lifetime. Katurian’s motivation for slowly giving in to the demands of Tupolski is not driven by guilt, innocence, or even the desire to stop his brother from getting any more hurt than he already has – it is to preserve his stories, to hope that they might survive in a country where humans are far frailer than words. It’s impossible to avoid mentioning the term here, and it feels a little easy (Katurian even talks about his situation being, “something-esque”), but the play really does rely on the Kafkaesque motif of the individual being crushed by an indifferent state that refuses to reveal the motivations for its actions; this has the added advantage in The Pillowman of avoiding straightforward anti-communist/anti-fascist grandstanding, and keeps it in the much broader (and much, much more emotionally powerful) realm of justifying the rights of the individual.
It’s a nasty play. It worried me slightly that it wasn’t the mutilation of children that most shocked me but instead the fact that when Ariel twisted Katurian’s arm behind his back it really didn’t feel like acting. I suppose a lot of us are desensitised to the way the world can be despicable sometimes; we read stories about dead children so often in the news. It takes some firm violence to snap us back to reality. Don’t let this put you off, though – The Pillowman is possibly the most powerful production I’ve seen in any student theatre, with a team who have carried it off with sinister aplomb. McDonagh’s plays tend to be divisive, but I doubt there is anyone who won’t find something to grab onto, outrage, or twist them, here.
New Theatre’s The Pillowman ran from the 29th of April to the 2nd of May
Katurian – Nick Medhurst
Tupolski – Adam Wood
Ariel – Ollie Silver
Michal – John Franklin
Mother – Chloe Keedy
Father – Pete Cary
Girl – Charlotte Wright
Boy – Max Benenson
Producer – Jess Conway
Director – Andy McNamee
Lighting Designer – Matt Leventhall
Stage Team – Jacqu Pretorius, Liz Stevenson, Natalie Bull, Amy Rushton
Original Score – Angus MacRae
Tech Team – Phill Geller, John Beer, Jonny Steer