Review: The Pillowman

Review: The Pillowman

Of all the plays to be interrupted by sudden illness in the stalls, Martin McDonagh’s intense The Pillow Man would be the most unfortunate. How could you keep that grisly narrative unfurling, with emotions at fever pitch, for twenty unscheduled minutes after someone collapsed. Yet the cast can and did, and the whole production, start to delayed finish, was brilliant to the power of three.

From the unsettling Kafkaesque start when Katurian (brilliant Keith Singleton) is being ‘questioned’ by the State police over his involvement in child murders, it was gripping. In a good and terrifying way, as nervous laughter is also part of the audience reaction. For McDonagh manages to wring the darkest humour out of this Grimm tale of an author whose grisly stories appear to be coming to life. Or death, as Katurian specializes in child extinction and a story, the eponymous Pillow Man, of how a soft bogeyman persuades small people to end it all before adult life reveals itself as shitty.

The writer’s fellow prisoner, in this torture chamber, is his backward brother Michal (also excellent David Murphy playing him like the lead in Of Mice and Men). They suffered different kinds of abuse at the hands of parents who were experimenting with one child loved, the other tortured by electric shock and violence. The result is the two men, both damaged in different ways but one having an expressive outlet for his nightly auditory witness to the cruelty in the other bedroom.

The police, two tormentors straight out of any given realistic horror movie, were superb. Believable, cruel, doing the nasty cop-nasty cop routine with assurance. The screaming or anticipated horror didn’t stop, except for the bleakest of humour. Abigail McGibbon and Steven Calvert were chillingly good.

After the unscheduled interval, the cast picked up the story seamlessly and deserved their genuine standing ovation at the end. There is Aristotle’s pity and fear, the key ingredients of tragedy, in this piece in buckets. We pity both brothers as we hear how Michael, spoiler alert, has acted out his older brother’s dystopian fairy tales of murder of the innocents. Yet can the author also be held to account as an accessory for these crimes via his imagination? No, for as we’re told, it’s the duty of the storyteller to tell the story.

And he does, and as it’s out duty to listen we do, even to the nastiest passages. The tale of Little Jesus is particularly harrowing and child actor Amelia Skillen did a brilliantly convincing job, dragging her crucifix around and wanted to be like the Christ figure. Until it came to the real crucifixion landed on her by those stock fairy tale figures, the wicked stepmother and father. She’s buried alive and mirabile dictu, actually survives. The other two children weren’t so fortunate, except in escape the disappointments of adult life.

This was a stellar production, superbly directed with no let-up by Emma Jordan. One to see, even through metaphorical fingers over your eyes. Ciaran Bagnall’s clever set helps with a moment when it lifts up to allow Katurian to descend into hell.

The fiction is saved not burnt as the police threatened to do after Katurian’s swift death by bullet. But questions remain, as with all good theatre.

Jane Hardy

The Pillowman runs at the Lyric (9038 1081) until June 15.

Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.