When it was originally performed at The National in 2003, Martin McDonagh’s Olivier award-winning The Pillowman only received lukewarm praise from critics. It was lauded for its combination of obsidian-black humour and engagingly naturalistic dialogue, but predictably criticised for its stomach-churning moments of child-abuse.
It centres on the interrogation of Katurian, a writer, whose grisly, murder-filled quasi-parables are being re-enacted by a sadistic serial-killer on the streets of an unidentified totalitarian city-state.
Director Tom Bailey, together with a core cast of four and his assistant director Miles Guilford, is preparing to stage a gender-blind interpretation of the cult classic at the Oxford Playhouse in 4th week. When I attended an early rehearsal in Oriel’s cluttered JCR annex, I was curious as to how Bailey viewed the play’s juxtaposition of humour and horror.
“I think it’s a masterful balance”, he tells me, “It’s the most striking thing about a lot of McDonagh’s work. I’ve realised that the play, like some of its characters, dishes out horrible cruelty and deprivation on the one hand, but brilliance and generosity in terms of humour on the other.”
When I ask afterwards about their collective approach to the performance, inter-character communication is evidently a major concern. Even as I watch the same scene again I realise that the cast’s positions, and their delivery, are both markedly different each time.
“The where, the who, and the what are all being prepared, but how the lines will be delivered is not going to be set”, Bailey reveals. “Throughout the entire process we’ve focussed on listening and communication so that what the audience sees is actually alive.”
“If people came to see it five times, they would see five different versions because [the cast] will be listening to each other and one tiny change from one person can set off a whole chain of reactions. It’s genuine communication on stage and that makes better theatre. I’m sure of it.”
Dominic Applewhite, who plays ‘good cop’ Tupolski, is quick to praise McDonagh’s script in helping them adopt this style.
“The script lends itself really well to our approach because it’s so natural and the dialogue is so conversational,” he gushes. “If you try to meticulously plan out at what point I’m going to think such and such, everything becomes dead. It’s all about communication.”
This somewhat daring approach, of allowing the actors to perform instinctively with the minimum of directorial imposition, also requires a deep understanding of the play. The cast have been preparing for this, I am told, by taking their characters out of context and improvising their interactions in different scenarios, imagining back-stories and “seeing what happens”.
Everyone chuckles when they recall Applewhite and Jonathan Purkiss, who plays Tupolski’s colleague Ariel, improvising their characters dining in the police canteen.
One unique feature of Bailey’s production is the casting of Claire Bowman and Emma D’Arcy as the anti-hero Katurian and his mentally disabled brother Michal, roles written for male actors. I ask Bailey whether this was a decision taken out of necessity or a device he planned from the outset.
“It was something I wanted from the start,” he confesses. “I felt uncomfortable with the idea of an all-male cast and I wanted to represent the wealth of female acting talent in Oxford.
“I also think that it gives the oppressive, totalitarian violence [that Katurian experiences at the hands of Tupolski and Ariel] another level of cruelty. It becomes a male oppression of female artistic expression. It’s a re-imagining of McDonagh’s play that is a lot harder to watch.”
It is impossible to disagree as I see Purkiss and Bowman practice a scene in which the latter’s eyes are viciously gouged out with very little provocation. This gender-blind approach understandably provides a challenge for Bowman but it is one she relishes. She tells me, “it is the most refreshing thing to play a part that isn’t a stereotypical female role. We discussed whether I was going to play it as a man, but decided that it was way more interesting if I was a woman.”
The rehearsals are only in their second week, but already the cast feel confident that the play is progressing well, both dramatically and stylistically. I am shown a cardboard model of the set, designed by Joel Scott-Halkes; the exact details of the design are being kept secret until opening night but rest assured, it will be jaw-droppingly impressive, mainly due to the scope the Playhouse stage provides for ambitious aesthetics.
I ask Bailey and his team if they are nervous about staging their work in the city’s premier theatre and they reassure me that anxiety is yet to rear its debilitating head. I almost believe them.
“There’s basically just the four of us,” says Applewhite, “and it is exhilarating to be doing something simultaneously so intimate and yet so epic.”
The enthusiasm and commitment Bailey shares with his cast and crew is thoroughly engaging. From the rehearsal I have seen, and from the revealing comments of both director and cast, The Pillowman seems on track to fulfil Bailey’s clear-sighted ambition.
“It’s unlike a lot of stuff that gets put on at the Playhouse”, Bailey tells me. “I think it’s the first show to be rated 18+. It’s definitely the smallest speaking cast that has been there in a long, long time. Essentially, we want to inject something into the arm of Oxford’s theatre-scene.”
Visibly excited, he breathlessly concludes, “It’s going to be a fucking rollercoaster.”