Katurian (Rory Fazan) is an enthusiastic author of short stories. When a series of child murders occur which bear an overwhelming similarity to those described in his writing, he and his disabled brother are hauled in for brutal questioning by a pair of detectives, who seem to embody the good cop/bad cop cliché - although the question is, which is which?
Martin McDonagh's frequently unsettling play is provocative without being gratuitous and in its inventively macabre treatment of themes ranging from child abuse to censorship and the purpose of art, it brings to mind nothing so much as our innate fascination with all that terrifies and appalls us.
We travel into the deep and dark terrain of the human mind, where every character harbours unsavoury or traumatic memories and desires. Katurian's stories, lurid and fantastical, are modern-day parodies of Grimm's Fairy Tales. The simpler, sadder real-life tragedies articulated later on in the play are all the more affecting as a result. One character, describing the loss of a child, whispers a single word: "Silly," summing up an overwhelming sense of grief and puzzlement at the senselessness of it.
Dan Wilner's staging is unfussy and economical, contrasting neatly with the contortions of the plot and the script's looping, elegant dialogue. The stage is lit with a bare, bleak wash, ideal for suggesting the workaday savagery of an interrogation room, changing only to a warmer glow centred on Katurian when he recites a tale, creating an ironic counterpoint to the horrors of his imagination. Occasionally the set feels slightly awkward and ill-shaped for clear delineation of acting areas, however this is a minor quibble set against its successful simplicity and starkness.
The cast is uniformly excellent. Krishna Omkar (Tupoloski) portrays very well his character's casual, suave, seemingly amoral approach to policing. Fazan ably demonstrates his character's journey from mealy-mouthed apologist, stating repeatedly that his stories mean nothing, signify nothing and are not intended to offend, to a brave author standing by his work to the point of willing to die to save them. Katurian, it seems, is guilty from the very start – if not of the actual murders, then of having the means to articulate his vision of childhood and the brutality that society inflicts on its children.
The Pillowman is frequently a discomforting experience, but one shot through with wonderfully dark humour (brilliantly exploited by Omkar, and Jacob Lloyd as his sidekick Ariel). As evinced by the fairy tales of our youth, we are spellbound by the darkest of imaginings. McDonagh here pushes that tendency to its very limit, but not merely as an exercise in taste. This is a thought-provoking and serious piece of work which has been ably staged by this student group.