Profoundly disturbing and intensely macabre, Martin McDonagh's new play provokes an ambivalent response. On the one hand his inventive imagination and ear for naturalistic dialogue is as sharp as ever, commanding both respect and attention but the sheer intensity of the horrors related will curdle all but the strongest of stomachs.
As the play opens a young writer sits blindfolded in a cell, clearly awaiting interrogation. A detective (Jim Broadbent) enters and asks the prisoner Katurian (David Tennant) to remove the blind as it simply looks silly; he does so and immediately tension is dissipated and a note of black humour struck that establishes the prevailing tone of the ensuing action: horror dissolving into humour, humour giving way to stark horror. McDonagh is a master of black comedy but he's never stretched the limits further than in this tale, set in an unnamed totalitarian state which blends the landscape of a skewed Brothers Grimm with Ortonesque overtones.
Katurian has written a series of gruesome short stories in which various children meet unsavoury ends, somewhat in the manner of the infamous StuttelPeter. A spate of identikit murders in the neighbourhood see both him and his retarded brother Michal standing accused of the crimes. Torn between obligation to his brother and a passionate desire to preserve his opus for posterity, Katurian- superbly played by Tennant- is a storyteller to his fingertips, his sinister, savage fairytales weaving a hypnotic spell on the audience that culminates in the personal revelation bringing the first act to a close; his autobiographical story brilliantly brought to life in Scott Pask's ingenious set.
Fortunately for McDonagh an exemplary cast have been chosen for this world premiere, expertly directed by John Crowley. Jim Broadbent is impeccable as the principal detective, Nigel Lindsay's in fine form as Ariel, his sidekick and sparring partner. Adam Godley's similarly impressive as Katurian's crafty brother, his crafty, childlike Michal an ideal foil to Tennant's character. For once heart and mind part company at the door- there's much intellectually to admire here but in terms of being digestible, it's certainly an acquired taste.
Once upon a time, there was a playwright called Martin McDonagh who possessed the vividest and sickest mind of his generation. Fortunately, he puts these assets to good use and creates thoughtful, funny and disturbing plays for us to enjoy, of which this is no exception.
The action takes place in the police cells within a Police State, the identity of which is not revealed, but from the music I guess we are meant to think somewhere in the old Eastern Europe. Neither is the time, in year or hour, revealed which makes this play immediately different from the specific Irish settings which have previously been the norm.
The police, played with relish by Nigel Lindsey and Jim Broadbent who turn from funny to sarcastic to menacing in an instant, are questioning two brotherly suspects about the gruesome murders of several children. Although innocence is protested, one of the brothers is a writer of horrific fairytales in which children die and these deaths exactly match those of the real life children found murdered after being horrifically tortured.
David Tennant and Adam Godley play the grim brothers who are suspected of being involved in the killings. Both actors give beautifully judged performances as the writer and his retarded brother. Whether on their own or together, they always command attention and sometimes sympathy. This is increased as their backstory is told and the audience realise the events that result in their present state. However, the question of what is real and what is a story hangs over everything, despite events being played out before your eyes.
The Pillowman of the title is one of the less horrifying fictional images due to its benevolent nature in helping children, but a real life 'pillowman' does make an appearance who has benevolent, but deadly, motives. The irony of this situation is not explained until the end of the play and I would recommend anyone stays to the end, despite maybe wanting to leave. It is 12 years since I first saw The Woman in Black, and this is the first play since then to make an entire audience jump out of its seat. I guess the actors have a great time with peoples' reactions.
The entire evening is based around the telling of stories and although the theme of 'how do you know something is true just because someone told you?' has been done before, it has never been illustrated with such horror and humour, with the dialogue and ridiculousness of some of the situations counteracting the more grisly aspects of the play. I thought it was a great evening's entertainment and one of the best new plays of the year, but maybe that tells me I should seek help.
Notices from the popular press....
NICHOLAS DE JONGH for THE EVENING STANDARD says, "Dazzling, disquieting nightmare of a play." MICHAEL BILLINGTON for THE GUARDIAN says, "While clever, has a feeling of hollowness." SUSANNAH CLAPP for THE OBSERVER says, "Stomach-churning and wildly comic." BENEDICT NIGHTINGALE of the THE TIMES says, "Unnerving but provocative."
Originally published on