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FringeReview UK 2023

The Pillowman

Empire Street Productions

Genre: Contemporary, Drama, Mainstream Theatre, Political, Theatre

Venue: Duke of York’s Theatre


Low Down


‘The greatest 21st century play’ deserves revival, and again after this where something of its lustre might be restored. Till then it abides our question, but question it you should, if not repulsed by true reports of its darkness.

Directed by Matthew Dunster, Designed by Anna Fleischele, Lighting Designer Neil Austin, Sound Designer Ian Dickinson, Video Dick Straker, Casting Director Amy Ball CDG,

Fight Directors Rachel Bown-Williams & Ruth Cooper-Brown for RC-Annie Ltd, Movement Director Chi-San Howard,

Associate Director Isabel Marr, Associate designer Liam Bunster, Associate Video Jachym Bouzer for Mesmer, Prop Supervisor Zoe Wilson for Propworks.

Till August 11th



Somehow cheated of its West End transfer, Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman originally started in the National’s Cottesloe (now Dorfman) in 2003 with David Tennant as the writer entering a Kafkaesque world. Hailed as masterpiece, transferring to Broadway, it’s retained a spectral reputation in McDonagh’s output.

Now revived by frequent McDonagh collaborator Matthew Dunster at the Duke of York’s Theatre, its singular world twists memories of those of us who’ve only been able to read it. Despite the timely championing of International PEN – with its roster of imprisoned writers – things fall apart.

Post-dating McDonagh’s two Irish trilogies, The Pillowman did come after The Lieutenant of Inishmore of 2001. Something of that play’s violence – but little of its humour – bleaches through shuttered windows as virtually unpublished short-story writer Katurian (Lily Allen) asks with concealed hauteur why they’re there.

If this does riff off The Trial, then it’s the Orson Welles’ version where he told Anthony Perkins “he’s as guilty as hell”, which didn’t help the film. It’s that ambiguity – not whether or not Katurian is guilty, but how they respond – that’s nagging here.  With one character named Ariel, it seems just too clear a homage to Ariel Dorfman and Death and the Maiden, whose genius is to keep the historic torture offstage.

Here in a nameless totalitarian state (though calling it that seems perverse, since no-one inside one usually does) a writer’s called in to explain why their gruesome unpublished stories offer templates to a trio of murders.

Tupolski (Steve Pemberton) declares he’s good cop to bad cop dim, emotional Ariel (a fine straight-down Daniel Millar standing for the reputedly maverick performance of Paul Kaye). Pemberton’s superb at conveying how grey, regrettable even, the procedure is of his arresting Katurian; but tricking them into corners.

That’s while Ariel just occasionally assaults, smashing Allen off the chair (fight directors Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown are called on for some unusual acts). Pemberton’s mix of urbanity and gotcha gambits seem to herald someone  blandly sorry for having to execute Katurian. Ariel seems thuggish till he starts groping towards a different conclusion. Millar touches a moment of redemption.

Allen moves from middle-class bafflement – they work in an abattoir but write short stories – to rapid acceptance of their fate. Even that detail, homage to East-European writers forced into menial jobs, is a bricolage. Katurian’s published one story is avowedly apolitical. They aren’t being punished for that; are indeed slavishly willing to co-operate.

Here in Allen’s clear tones Katurian’s also middle-class. Katurian’s obsession is odd too: above all they want their work preserved, even over themselves – who after all might write many times the 400 tales if they survive. It’s what McDonagh uses to push Katurian to make desperate, slightly unbelievable gambits.

At certain points the dingy scuffy police office with its desk and chairs, filing cabinets full of electrodes, moves sideways in Anna Fleischele’s memorably slick sliding set. For the office and dank prison cell Fleischele substitutes on occasion a Brunswick green interior where Katurian’s fables are enacted. Even imagination’s subdued. We see through its glass dankly.

The 11 tales themselves are quite the most gruesome variations on gruesome Grimm to have touched the stage in a long time; far more than Angela Carter’s.  No wonder McDonagh went on to A Very, Very, Very Dark Matter in 2018.

And there’s fine if underused stage machinery. ‘The Child Jesus’ involves a transparent element below the stage. Neil Austin’s lighting here too is briefly exquisite. Early on Ian Dickinson’s sound design produces some evocative chords, but there’s virtually nothing else allowed in that bleached world. Dick Straker’s video design etches just a few cartoon effects. There seems a luxury of under-use.

Understudies at least are given a work-out. Mother (Carlotta de Gregori for Rebecca Lee), Father (David Angland) and children Madelynne Mills and Lillie Stocker all play in the darkest of dumb-shows.

Allen’s good at maintaining a credible dignity, and the gender-swap, which overall doesn’t add so much, does enjoy a telling pay-off. Katurian’s damaged brother Michal (Matthew Tennyson) has been arrested and Katurian told he’s being tortured; cries are heard.

The tender, appalled chemistry between Allen and the excellent Tennyson is palpable, and the long scene with them the crux of the play. As Michal plays at reveals and Katurian desperately circles round and flinches at the truth, you see their world and even their own preservation of selfhood transform.

It’s the highpoint of the evening and might be the best performance of this scene. It’s definitely the reason to see this play. Tennyson plays Michal beautifully, with a mix of childish warmth, cunning and spite. Allen’s sparked out of her respectable storytelling mode and resigned victimhood, to far more emotional conflicts and responses. There’s a nuance and complexity she’s not free, or experienced enough, to explore elsewhere.

The only trouble lies with the levels of articulacy Tennyson’s called on to express. Apparently cognitively impaired – perhaps for reasons we learn – Michal’s level of sophistication and argument vary dramatically and unbelievably. Often childlike, Michael gradually unsheathes a very different mind.

The denouement too, and twists make this a story far from grey. McDonagh’s plotting is frenetic and often brilliant. It might move inexorably and lack a variety of pace, but Greek tragedies do that. Dunster, who heeds McDonagh’s complaint of directors tweaking his work, might well wish to ensure nothing distracts.

And nothing does. We see too clearly the strange joins of the dramaturgy, the sudden appearance of someone which then ask questions that aren’t going to be answered (and I can’t be specific here). And this isn’t so much masterly as trying to create an effect and volte-face that doesn’t come for a reason. It’s not quite earned.

McDonagh’s a powerful and witty enough storyteller as well as dramatist for this not to matter in a different production. But in this meticulous formaldehyde of one, the cleansed world is full of cracks. ‘The greatest 21st century play’ deserves revival, and again after this where something of its lustre might be restored. Till then it abides our question, but question it you should, if not repulsed by true reports of its darkness.