Review: The Pillowman

The power of storytelling is a theme encoded within the play’s text but it is also a notion reinforced by Tom Fisher’s masterfully crafted production.


Martin McDonagh’s jet black comedy is brought to life (and sentenced to a gruesome death) by Tom Fisher and his stellar cast.

I coughed, continuously, throughout Tom Fisher’s production of The Pillowman; it would be fair to say I had a coughing fit, the kind where your eyes stream. The kind where you are scared to swallow, to clear your throat, for fear that even the smallest movement of the mouth might set off another bout. The last time I can remember having had such a fit of coughs was when sitting my eleven plus exam (the standard in Northern Ireland). Long division questions speckled with phlegm. I had to be removed from the examination room and placed in a nearby box room in which I could not distract the other kids. Almost ten years later and the throat fiend was back to tickle my larynx, during a play I was reviewing no less. A particularly intense play. A play full of quiet moments, distressing moments, moments when coughing loudly, repeatedly is not acceptable. But there I was, completely enthralled and somewhat embarrassed, holding my breath and my pen and my leaking nose, occasionally breaking into ill-timed rounds of barking.

It must be a stress thing, the coughing, like a stress-induced nose bleed. I don’t have a cold and haven’t coughed once since leaving The Pilch Studio. I suppose my outburst was a visceral, physical reaction to the sickening stories being graphically narrated and enacted on stage in Fisher’s production of Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman.

The blackest of comedies, this play sees good fun and bad taste merge, both delighting and molesting its audience. A table and three chairs sit on stage set against a backdrop of child-like drawings; strange, nightmarish visions communicated in colouring pencil. A figure, their head covered with a black cloth bag, takes the central chair. Another cast member enters through the audience, shining a torch at the anonymous figure and skimming the drawings arranged at the edges of the far wall, framing an empty black space in the centre. The hooded figure is revealed to be our protagonist, Katurian, a writer under investigation by two detectives working for a totalitarian state government. Some of Katurian’s twisted short stories bear striking resemble to recent child murders. When Katurian hears that his cognitively disabled brother Michal is also being held in police custody and has confessed to the murders, implicating him, he resigns himself to being executed and spends his final hours attempting to save his stories from destruction. 

Several of these macabre modern fairytales, all linked by their focus on extravagant, torturous violence inflicted upon children, arere-enacted throughout the course of Tom Fisher’s production. It is these re-enactments that really bring the production into full colour (a lot of peachy pinks and baby blues spattered with deep reds and fleshy tones). Marionettes, shadow puppets, masks, music and choreography are all employed by to great effect. They work well to dramatize the depraved tales turned all-too-real horrors. The most affecting storytelling device used is a great big, pink Pillowman puppet. Resembling a creepy-yet-cute Tim Burton creation, the gentle spectre gestures, tilts his head and glides around the room mounted on actors’ arms. The spectacle is deeply moving. While most of Katurian’s storiesdisturb, that of The Pillowman blows the heart open. 

Our emotions pulled the fore, we are all the more susceptible to the play’s numerous laugh-out-loud moments. Some dreadfully funny lines are delivered expertly.  Gavin Fleming’s magnetic and more than slightly psychopathic‘good cop’, Tupolski, is a prime culprit in this respect. Repulsive little chuckles embellish his every sentence, even the most threatening of which are delivered with a perverse buoyancy and unplaceable grin. Ariel, the resident ‘bad cop’, brought to life by Jake Rich, appears at first a totem of unbridled rage, impatient to raise a fist and brandish the electrodes. However, as the play progresses, Rich is able to explore his character’s vulnerabilities and shows some great humanity. For much of the play the detective duo leer and quiz and quarrel at opposite ends of the interrogation table, sandwiching Katurian. As her positioning on stage suggests Marianne James’ Katurian is central to the success of the production. The emotional journey James unfolds is compelling. In both tender moments and when in despair her performance is consistently strong. With a confident, controlled voice, she leads us through grim scenarios like a true storyteller. 

Stepan Mysko von Schultzeis, perhaps, the stand-out member of this skilled ensemble. His performance as Michal is as hilarious as it is heart-breaking. Each of his lines arrive like a fresh thought. Idiosyncratic behaviours and speech patterns are used to convey Michal’s cognitive disability but, crucially, are not overplayed.His relationship with his brother Katurian is made entirely believably by their natural, witty back and forth. This provides a welcome break from the intensity of the interrogation scenes. This break is, however, cut short when, without warning and in his usual light-hearted and playful tone, Michal confesses to the murder of the children.: “I thought I’d hidden it [the body] really well”. Chilling.

The Pillowman is a play that ponders the relationship between an artist, their works and their audience. The power of storytelling is a theme encoded within the play’s text but it is also a notion reinforced by Tom Fisher’s masterfully crafted production. When the house lights turned on I, like everyone else, applauded enthusiastically. But, in my opinion, my coughs were my real show of appreciation, evidence of how much I was affected by the play. Each one a testament to the play’s intensity. I left the Pilch with wide eyes, dazed, enlivened by what I had seen. I hope you will too. I recommend you bring Strepsils.

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