A man is seated at a table with a black hood over his head. Through his interrogation by two policemen, Ariel and Tupolski, we learn that the man – unfortunately named Katurian Katurian Katurian, in true Hellerian fashion – is a writer, specifically a writer of short stories. Katurian is unsure why he is being questioned but assumes that it relates to his fictional works, which are scattered over the table in front of him. Katurian argues that his stories have no social or political meaning; in the oppressive dictatorship in which the play is set, such accusations could mean execution. As he learns that his gruesome stories were the inspiration for a spate of child murders, he begins to doubt how innocent his writing really is.
The Pillowman, Martin McDonagh’s seventh play, marks somewhat of a departure from his preceding six, the Leenan and Aran Islands trilogies. Gone is County Galway, replaced with a foreboding, unnamed, totalitarian dystopia. Like McDonagh’s screenplay for Seven Psychopaths, the play revolves around metafiction: in both works the line between fiction and reality becomes blurred as each starts to take on aspects of the other. As the play progresses, Katurian also becomes aware that what he is told in the interrogation room or in newspapers is not necessarily any truer than one of his own stories.
Storytelling is integral not only to the play’s plot but also its structure; interspersed throughout are theatrical depictions of several of Katurian’s stories. The stories within the play can be seen as postmodern pastiche, drawing heavily from the constructions of nursery rhymes, biblical stories, fables and folklore. They begin with the archetypal story-telling device, ‘Once upon a time,’ and end with (usually grisly) twists, drawing attention to the violence that pervades traditional tales for children.
The stage design for the Oxford production, directed by Tom Bailey, appropriately hinges on the interaction between these two worlds: the interrogation scenes take place forestage in a dull concrete setting, while the story scenes extend to use the area behind, initially shrouded by a gauze. As Katurian takes centre stage, four silent actors move behind him, complementing his storytelling with physical theatre. The props are similarly ambitious, mirroring the fantastical nature of the stories.
This production, uniquely, uses gender-blind casting, countering McDonagh’s tendency towards male-dominated ensembles by choosing to have Katurian (Claire Bowman) and his disabled brother Michal (Emma D’Arcy) as female roles. Whether audiences agree with the decision or not, it undeniably opens up a new realm of interpretative possibility. Is the archetypal creative artist-male here feminised and subjugated by posturing alpha-male cops (here played by Dominic Applewhite and Jonathan Purkiss)? Is the use of an actress to play Michal a comment upon the scarcity in literature and theatre of female characters with disabilities? Whatever the conclusions drawn, the production introduces gender politics to The Pillowman, a concern otherwise overwhelmingly absent from this and McDonagh’s other works.
Those interested in learning more about the uncertain postmodern narratives of McDonagh’s works are recommended to attend Dr. Sos Eltis’s talk at 1.15pm on Saturday 1st November; admission is free for ticket holders to the Saturday matinee performance. Others put off by The Pillowman for the same reasons, though, should be reassured that it remains not only accessible but also genuinely funny. The humorous touches, of which there are many, are not so much comic relief as part of a ghoulish whole. In any case, The Pillowman’s run at the Oxford Playhouse promises to be an impressive production of this chilling and powerful work.