Life is hard for Katurian K. Katurian: he’s an unsuccessful writer living in a totalitarian dictatorship, he’s a murder suspect, and he just so happens to be the central character in Martin McDonagh’s latest twisted masterpiece, which doesn’t really bode well for him.
At first glance, The Pillowman is another McDonagh classic; the play is full of the usual horror and violence, featuring gruesome tales of harrowing child abuse and gore, intertwined with bursts of unsettling humour – a mix that, combined with Carl Kennedy’s ghostly lullaby soundtrack, leaves you feeling ill-at-ease in your seat. Upon further inspection (or reading of the programme), however, it is noticeable that within The Pillowman there lies an important message about the power of writers, and the importance of storytelling & the freedom of speech.
Since its premiere in 2003, The Pillowman has received widespread critical acclaim, and has also managed to scoop up two Tony Awards & an Olivier Award. It’s not hard to see why. The Decadent Theatre Company’s performance of the play, which recently finished its two-month tour of Ireland, is faultless, with particular stand-outs being Owen Sharpe as Michal, Katurian’s intellectually disabled older brother, and Diarmuid Noyes, in the role of Katurian himself. Sharpe, whose other work includes roles in The Guard and My Left Foot, gives a charming, funny performance, while Noyes’ perfect delivery of Katurian’s horrifying children’s tales, which are more likely to be found in a Kubrick or Tarantino film than anywhere else, makes for a chilling night at the theatre.
Owen MacCartháigh’s ingenious set design deserves special mention. I won’t ruin it for you, but the way in which MacCartháigh utilises the space to create scenes from the past, present and the imagined is something truly brilliant. The set is crucial to making the dark tales of The Pillowman as engrossing as they are, and as an audience member you are immersed in the dystopian world of the play.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of The Pillowman is the play’s exploration of the topics of art and power, and the relationship between them. McDonagh celebrates the power of writers as something that can bring even an authoritarian dictatorship into panic. It is a play that reminds us of the power of the individual against the collective, and the crucial importance of freedom of speech.
Then, there’s the story itself. Again, there’s no mistaking who wrote The Pillowman, with McDonagh’s snappy dialogue and unruly violence, evident in his other work like In Bruges and The Academy Award winning Six Shooter, also at the centre of this story. The exchanges between characters are bizarrely entertaining, and McDonagh’s signature mix of humour and tragedy is a key feature of the play. At times, you find yourself laughing during the gruesome tales of child murders, wondering how you got there. For fans of Orwell and Kafka-type dystopias, The Pillowman is a sure treat.
The Pillowman is bizarre. It’s funny, it’s witty, it’s creepy, it’s unsettling and it’s vaguely horrifying. And if you get the chance to go and see it, I couldn’t recommend it enough.