It is easy to stage The Pillowman by accentuating its surreal, crowd-pleasing freak-show qualities. The play starts out in a relatively grounded manner: Katurian Katurian, writer of gruesome fairy-tales, is interrogated by a totalitarian police state in order to confess to the crime of writing stories, although he does not know the exact nature of his crimes. As he repeatedly insists, the stories don’t symbolize anything, much less anything political. The Kafkaesque quality of the trial aside, there is nothing too far-fetched about this premise. Soon, however, the play sets up an audacious switch into a surreal setting that partly or entirely takes place in Katurian’s imagination, and before we know it, fairy-tales are enacted in Technicolor, faces are bashed in, characters are choked on stage by pillows, and jokes about gruesome child murders and severed toes are being traded left and right. All of these can be played as circus spectacle, and the audience can walk away with plenty of guilty fun. However, Rough-Hewn’s production valiantly attempts, and mostly succeeds, in mining the material for as much depth and seriousness as it can offer. Although Martin McDonagh’s writing reveals itself to be less disturbing and less coherent than it pretends to be, the final product on stage is full of surprising depth. The cast and crew rescues an interesting but ultimately disappointing play in a production that’s well worth watching. Not content with offering mere entertainment, director Thomas Bailey and his serious-minded gender-blind cast have focused instead on the play’s more introspective elements.
Such examples are detectives Topolski and Ariel. To be sure, actors Dominic Applewhite and Jonathan Purkiss did occasionally play up the vaudeville qualities of their characters when the humour demands it. However, even in their most comic moments, they never lost their menace. The perverse way they questioned Katurian, deliberately phrasing their questions to be misunderstood again and again, became not just a comic device, or a sick game they play with their prey, but a kind of coping mechanism against the inhuman brutality of their jobs. Claire Bowman portrayed Katurian neither with melodramatic fear nor a martyr’s pretense. Instead, she conveyed the everyman qualities of her character by focusing on Katurian as just a simple man trying to keep himself and his brother safe. He even loses his fear of the detectives for a minute when he recites a story with verve and passion, lost in his imagination, with Bowman helpfully adding flourishes with hand gestures – this enthusiasm being an important aspect of Katurian’s character to convey, for the audience’s acceptance of the absurd, surrealist portions later in the play depends completely on them believing in Katurian’s unconditional love for stories. Michal, Katurian’s mentally impaired brother, played by Emma D’Arcy, is portrayed as not just a simple, foolish figure of pity: D’Arcy foregrounded Michal’s struggle in figuring out the situation for himself, forcing us to see Michal’s thoughts as valuable in their own right. The gender-blind casting never jarred, and although the awareness of a new dimension of gender-politics – the oppressor’s roles all played by men, the oppressed all women – does permeate the whole show, it is very easy for the audience to lose itself in the action and to relate to the characters as universal human types.
This staging of the play fully utilised all resources of sight and sound in its reenactment of Katurian’s stories. In a particularly clever piece of stage construction, what seemed like the back wall of the interrogation room was in fact a semi-transparent mesh hiding a stage behind it. When it was time for Katurian’s dreamworld to explode on stage, the lights suddenly changed, revealing the stage behind in a dazzling flash that shocked and unsettled almost the entire audience. The percussive underscore, used sparingly and mostly in transitions, accentuated the spectacle without intruding. However, there were some mundane blunders in staging that marred the effect a little: for example, for much of the interrogation scene, Katurian’s face was hidden for the first two rows of the audience by the chair opposite him. Apart from such small moments, however, the staging of the play is realized with slick technical expertise.
Ultimately, the production represents the farthest direction one can go in staging the play as a serious examination of an artist’s interior life. For, in the end, despite its attempts at echoing Kafkaesque or Orwellian or even psychoanalytic themes, Martin McDonagh’s writing neither engages with politics, nor culminates in any coherent vision of the creative process. The totalitarian police state does not represent any political power but merely a writer’s persecution fantasy. The play’s central conceit about whether Michal committed murders based on Katurian’s story, and whether Katurian is therefore morally responsible, is so trite (it is, in essence, the question wrestled by the standard Sunday news editorial about the possible dangers of violent movies and video-games) and at the same time so detached from reality that it reflects nothing substantial on the value and purpose of art. Finally, Ariel’s incredible personal transformation, with a backstory that’s almost a caricature of psychoanalytical explanations of character, also doubles as a cloying, self-congratulatory pat-on-the-back that the playwright gives himself regarding the power of storytelling. Yet, at the same time, one does have to admit that the play has many funny, interesting, and thought-provoking moments in isolation. Although the playwright doesn’t seem to be able to bring them together into a unity, the production tries its best to achieve where he fails – and, incredibly, succeeds.
The Pillowman is running at the Oxford Playhouse until the 1st November; for more information and to book tickets, please visit their website.