★★★☆☆
Three Stars

They said The Pillowman would be dark — they weren’t kidding. The outlook of the play is almost unremittingly bleak. The humour, of which there is either loads, or slim to none, depending entirely upon how ghoulish an individual you are, counters this only a little. Then again, with a play about child murders in a totalitarian state you can’t really expect much — or anything — in the way of sweetness and light.

The casting of the play is apt and effective. Claire Bowman gives an impressive performance as the flawed central character, retaining the audience’s interest even when Katurian does not have their sympathy. Dominic Applewhite and Jonathan Purkiss give nuanced performances as police officers Tupolski and Ariel, bookending the intensity of the play’s central scenes with comedy that remains dark enough not to jar with the overall tone. Featured prominently in the advertising of the play is its use of gender-blind casting. What was surprising about its implementation is how little (after a while) it seemed to matter that female actors were being addressed with male names and pronouns. The ease with which Bowman and D’Arcy’s excellent performances as “The Writer and his Brother” were accepted makes me wish wholeheartedly for more casting in this vein.

The realistic set of the interrogation room peels back fluidly to reveal a dark, wooded environment, a cutaway room jutting precariously into the dreamscape. There’s an appropriate element of ‘twisted fairy tale’ in this stage design — something unsettling that is difficult to pin down or explain without robbing it of its creepy charm. Staging steps up another notch with a cross formed of LED lights and also an ambitious and extremely effective take on one of Katurian’s characters.

Despite the high calibre of acting, and incredibly adept direction and conceptualisation of staging, there are some uncomfortable moments. There’s something that makes me squirm in my seat about listening to an audience of Oxonians sniggering at the way social and emotional norms are transgressed by Katurian’s brother, who has learning difficulties. Emma D’Arcy’s depiction of Michal’s learning difficulties is extremely impressive, but it’s hard to be certain to what extent the audience laugh simply because the lines are funny, or rather because Michal’s disability somehow causes the humour. The play’s toying with the trope of the despicable disabled individual is hardly cleverer or more nuanced than the equally overused endowment of similarly abled characters with near sainthood.

Disability as equivalent to evil is hardly new or original (Richard III anyone?) and this element of McDonagh’s play makes me more uncomfortable than I can adequately express. The Pillowman causes strong emotional responses in its audience, and I’m sure many of mine are highly subjective.

As the plot twists, turns, and doubles back on itself, so do responses to the characters, and even to the play itself. The act break is in a dangerous position plot-wise — I almost considered sneaking off in the interval to escape the darkness and disturbia. It’s not a feel good play.

For reasons I can’t fully explain without spoiling the plot (and possibly can’t explain full stop) I’m extremely glad I did stick around. This is not only because the standard of the production is incredible, but also because the play manages to pull off a feat I thought near impossible. It gestures towards some sort of meaning or purpose in the evitable sufferings of existence it depicts so vividly.

If you’ve got vast resources of emotional stamina, or a thirst for the macabre and gruesome, you’re bound to enjoy The Pillowman, and for anyone without these prerequisites — if you stick with it, I don’t think you’ll regret the experience.