In the decade since premiering at The National Theatre, The Pillowman has lost none of its shock and awe. Since 2003 Martin McDonagh’s plays have won Tonys and Oliviers, he’s won an Oscar for his short film Six Shooter, a BAFTA for In Bruges, and won the world over to Sam Rockwell (if not much else) in Seven Psychopaths. But it is in this, his most famous play, that he is at his twisted and hilarious best.
Set in an unnamed totalitarian state, a writer of gruesome Brothers Grimm-style fairystories finds himself in a confusing confrontation with the state police. It becomes clear that Katurian K. Katurian’s beloved tales share a little too much resemblance to some recent child killings. The investigating officers Tupolski and Ariel (Dominic Applewhite and Jonathan Purkiss in excellent sniping and nuanced style) literally pull no punches, resorting to torture in the opening five minutes. This is not for the faint hearted. McDonagh’s remarkable script allows that whenever the content has become just too intense, there is a rapid tonal shift from the dark to the absurdly comic, each time a slightly delayed cathartic reward for the audience, and tension relief for the accusing officials. When Katurian is told that his brother Michal, who is ‘slow to get things’, has, under threat of torture, confessed to the murders and Kat’s involvement, Katurian endeavours to ensure the lasting safety of his work, before their execution.
This Oxford University student companies' joint venture has used an interesting gender-blind casting process. It’s not a full gender-role swapping exercise, and none of the roles have been re-gendered in the script, it’s basically just that two of the four leads are here played by women. What’s interesting about it is that it has no significant impact whatsoever. We accept their characters immediately through convincing, commanding performances, and after the first few minutes ‘Mr’ Katurian, ‘his’ stories and ‘brother’ stop jarring. It’s lovely to see that it is so unremarkable, neither gimmicky nor point-proving.
Claire Bowman is excellent as the self-important yet caring Katurian. Playing at once desperate, pathetic, determined and brave, Bowman is perhaps best when telling the bitter tales, each with a footnoted twist; good doesn’t always get away with it. Emma D’Arcy has natural timing and is perversely endearing as brother Michal, managing to contain what might easily have slipped into melodrama. The show has a first-rate supporting cast, and the production value is truly impressive.
A very fine production of a masterpiece play, this’ll keep you gripped right down to the last story’s last twist.