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Unsettling, Mesmerising, Lyrical: The Pillowman

by on 1 May 2017

The Pillowman

by Martin McDonagh

Teddington Theatre Club at The Coward Room, Hampton Hill Theatre until 6th May

Review by Thomas Forsythe


Are you sitting comfortably?  Then I will begin … …

… … but I guarantee that you will not be sitting comfortably for very long.

If you like your humour to be black, then The Pillowman is the vantablack of humour.  And the humour is the foil to as gruesome a tale as ever entered the Brothers Grimm’s corpus.

Then come out from behind the sofa, peep between your fingers, and I’ll start again.

Once upon a time, there was a director called Kelly Wood, who specialises in plays that intertwine horror and humour and a writer who specialises in plays about … er, rural life in the west of Ireland?

Yes, Martin McDonagh is better known for stage plays set in bucolic Celtic surroundings, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, A Skull in Connemara orThe Cripple of Inishmaan.  Breaking the mould, The Pillowman was his first play not to be set in County Galway, the home of his parents.  It had its world premiere at the National in 2003 (although it did appear as a rehearsed reading at the Finborough Theatre in 1995).  However, interestingly, it was not until 2015 that The Pillowman had it Irish premiere (in Galway), having had premieres in nine other countries in the interim.

Kelly Wood’s first full directorial piece for TTC was in the controversial Night of Dark Intent in 2013, another piece of black humour and horror, albeit with a slightly lighter touch than The Pillowman.   In this remarkable piece, she demonstrates clearly that she has mastered the genre.  The Pillowman is a play that is highly disturbing, full of uneasy humour and at the same time deeply touching.   It unnervingly lurches from explicit violence to tender lyricism.  It is also cleverly written, as stories sit within stories and the plot can be interpreted in several ways.  Wood has therefore a challenging piece to move from page to stage, and the challenge was undoubtedly well met.

McDonagh never makes the time nor the place setting of The Pillowman clear, but it is set within a totalitarian police state in the recent past, which smacks strongly of Eastern Europe in the 1960s.  We are in the subterranean interrogation cells of the police headquarters.  The outstanding skills of TTC’s inventive set designer, Trine Taraldsvik, have transformed the intimate space of the Hampton Hill Theatre’s Coward Studio into a menacing and claustrophobic space.   The walls are brutal concrete blocks, rendered in trompe d’œil; the floors pierced with drains and grilles; the furniture steel.   The details are ironic statements of the nature of the room’s business, sacks marked “Police Evidence” stacked high, a “No Smoking” sign.

Even as the audience foregathers, there, sitting on a chair, is a prisoner with a black bag over his head.  At the start, a policeman enters and tells the prisoner to remove the bag, as it simply looks silly.  At once the prevailing tone of the play is struck: a building and dissipation of horror to humour and of humour to horror.

The prisoner is Katurian K Katurian, a writer of fairy-stories that describe macabre killings of young children.   However, these killings are identikit matches of those of real life children found murdered after being horrifically tortured.   His inquisitors are Tupolski, the lead detective, who declares himself to be the “good cop” and Ariel, the brutal and short-tempered “bad cop”.  Or is it the other way round?  In this play, there all the time hovers a feeling that what you see is not what you get: the question of what is real and what is a story is left ambiguous.


Ariel’s methods of interrogation are to the point.  His opening is to bang the head of his prisoner so hard on the steel table that everyone in the audience gasps (and that’s just for starters).  Tupolski’s methods are more psychological, he has a good line in sarcasm peppered with ironic non-sequiturs … and he is the one who wears the gun.  Katurian is also the carer for his older brother, Michal, who is “slow to get things”.  When we learn that Michal has also been taken into custody from his school for special needs, we know that the police interrogation methods will take another tack.  Both brothers are suspected of implication in the children’s murders.  They are threatened with summary execution. Then Katurian hears Michal’s voice, screaming in agony from a neighbouring cell.  He is being tortured… or is he?

Luke Michaels as Ariel (last seen at TTC as the sinister taciturn waiter in Dinner) pitches the level of menace just right, never understated but never straying into caricature.  Brooding and introspective, his portrayal nevertheless allows room for hints of humanity to glimmer through the cracks.  Charles Golding plays a Tupolski that is controlled and controlling.  He is the puller of strings.  The sharp knife of sarcasm and even sharper tool of ridicule are whetted to perfection.  Golding knows how to balance the black comedy with a sense of menace.  When extracting a confession, Tupolski says, “It’s just like being at school … except that school didn’t execute you … unless it was a tough school”.  The timing was spot-on.

Tom Cooper’s depiction of the retarded Michal put across his damaged and vulnerable nature whilst showing a child-like but crafty other edge.   It is through Michal that we hear the tragic back-story of the brothers, their years of physical abuse at the hands of their parents.   Michal was tortured by his parents so that his harrowing screams would filter into the talented young Katurian’s dreams to inspire him to become an eminent writer.  To this extent the parents’ grotesque experiment succeed in that it produced Katurian’s hypnotically ghoulish fairy-stories.


These fairy-stories of Katurian’s are symbolically auto-biographical, and in these stories sit others like the figures in a Babushka doll.  Interestingly, in the real world McDonagh and his brother were abandoned by their parents in London when they returned to Galway when Martin McDonagh was eleven years old.  Maybe the nested Babushka dolls reflect an auto-biographical element into real life.

It is in the recounting of these stories that McDonagh’s style widens into a broad lyricism, a poetic form that has a strange mesmerising beauty in spite of its horrific subject matter.  And here the TTC’s production is astounding.  Katurian tells his stories from the intimacy of a tightly spot-lit circle, to a mesmerising soundscape and accompanied by projections of sepia drawings with a wabi-sabi quality.   Mention must be made at this point of the creative team.  Steph Pang’s lighting design is subtlety atmospheric, often with candlelit feel, but incorporating nice effects such as a black-light special to revel blood splashes on the wall and floor as luminous traces; Nick Eliott’s edgy soundscape included music from Ghosts by NIИ (the industrial rock band, Nine Inch Nails); whereas the drawings by illustrator Michelle Sabev are influenced by The Brothers Quay.  Tom Wright’s costume design is crisply to the point, white for the “innocent” prisoners, black for the “evil” torturers.

Katurian tells his stories, some juvenile such as The Little Green Pig; some ostensibly reassuring like The Pillowman; others with terrifying endings, The Little Apple Men, The Three Gibbet Crossroads, The Tale of the Town on the River and The Little Jesus, or the auto-biographical The Writer and the Writer’s Brother; but all with utterly shocking conclusions.


It is in the telling of these stories that the outstanding acting of Tom Shore as Katurian comes to the fore.  He is a consummate story-teller and has the audience transfixed.  Set this against the totally engaging portrayal of Katurian, which has the audience gripped with every direction of his feelings, fear, defiance, pain, exasperation, then it was a tour-de-force.   Katurian has multiple dilemmas, but the ultimate is does he save himself, his beloved brother or his life’s work, his stories?

As each of the four main characters’ backstories emerge our sympathies swing between them, but the ending, never predictable, is not what the audience expected or hoped.  However, as throughout the play, the ending has more twists than, say, a little green pig’s tail.

Katurian is interrogated at one point about the style of his writing.  He replies, “It is something –esque; I’m not sure what”.  The same could be said of McDonagh’s treatment of The Pillowman.  Think Grimm-esque overpainted Kafka-esque, with Orwell-esque shading and a little Pinter-esque or even Orton-esque detailing.

We are told that writing is “worth getting your elbows broken for”, but is this a play about the responsibilities of the writer, about the power of the pen, or about power itself?  Is it about fidelities and values?  Or is it about the nature of reality and what you can believe?  Whatever it is about, The Pillowman is a cracking multi-layered story and, for all its unsettling horror, TTC’s version is utterly mesmerising.

… but don’t expect that fairy-story ending … “and they all lived happily ever after”.

Thomas Forsythe

April 2017

Photographs by Jonathan Constant



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