There are sinister undertones to many classic fairy tales, and “The Pillowman” takes this concept on an extreme journey.
It focuses on two brothers, Katurian and Michal, who live in an unnamed police-controlled state. Katurian writes “fairy tales” in which many of the characters (mainly children) come to a gruesome end.
Unfortunately someone is murdering real children in deaths that mirror those in his stories. Soon both brothers are arrested and under interrogation from “Stasi” style detectives Tupolski and Ariel.
The good cop/bad cop both have their own stories and their own motives for suspecting the brothers. Indeed an unfortunate childhood dominates not just Katurian’s stories, but the lives of all the characters.
The play shifts from interrogation, back to the brothers’ childhood, and into the cell where Michal, who is in turn described as “slow” and “retarded”, and Katurian, reveal the truth of their past and the murders.
Dreamlike delivery of twisted tales
In each scene one or more of the stories is told, sometimes by Katurian, in sequences portrayed to the audience through a curtain that gives each enactment a dream-like quality. Elsewhere the detectives read aloud the stories in disbelief peppered with sarcasm.
In the end, there is nothing left for Katurian but to save his dark stories, not only as the passion of his life, but a bi-product of the cruelty of his parents.
Set in a grim dictatorial world of police interrogation, the main stage is bare, just a table, three chairs and a filing cabinet. In the police cell, the brothers sit on a blanket together to recount Katurian’s stories, reminiscent of children gathered on a mat for story time.
Martin McDonagh’s play is both shocking and filled with dark humour. You find yourself laughing out loud at the sheer relief of the comedy, in what is essentially a sinister story from beginning to end.
Convincing performances from both brothers
Martin Campion plays the difficult role of Michal exceptionally well. His character slips into the language of childhood, asking if among the toys in one story, there is a dog that barks, before switching effortlessly to the quite clever and slightly psychotic grown man who has lived with years of abuse.
Katurian, as played by Aymeric d’Hérouël, is convincing as an obsessive writer who has toiled over his stories and believes them to be masterpieces that reflect the blackness in his heart. D’Hérouël delivers humour with great timing, and makes Katurian a likeable character who you believe is trying to do the right thing.
It’s interesting that two English accents were used for the detectives – the upper class for Tupolski, played by John Evans, the good cop who appears more merciful but who in the end is vindictive and cold. Working class Ariel, played by Mike West, is the bad cop whose desire for revenge is driven by his own dark story. They deliver the interrogation scenes wonderfully with the quick repartee of two characters that are both familiar but in conflict with each other.
A world with too much violence?
Violence is all around in this play – in the stories, in the interrogation room, and the childhoods of the characters.
It’s worth arriving 15 minutes before the play starts to hear a pre-talk on the Irish playwright Martin McDonagh by stage manager and assistant director, John Brigg.
“If we are prepared to tolerate violence on stage, in movies and games, what’s the context for tolerating real life violence,” Brigg asks the audience.
McDonagh is no stranger to shocking his theatre audiences, although he is perhaps most famous for writing and directing the film “In Bruges”.
Finally, if you are wondering about the pillows, well they feature heavily as both set props-cum-murder weapons, but if you want to find out who “The Pillowman” is, you’ll have to see the play.