TRCH Bodyguard

The Pillowman

6 November 14 words: Gareth Morgan
Who is the Pillowman, and how deeply is he willing to go for the sake of his art?


In an unnamed country, in an unnamed town, in a faceless police station, down some dark, dark stairs, in a bright white room… a man is being electrocuted with a car battery. This isn't Janet and Alan Ahlberg's Funnybones taking a Tarantino twist but the latest offering at The Lace Market Theatre: Martin McDonagh's devilishly dark The Pillowman.  

In this pristine police cell, the man attached to the battery, children's story writer Katurian, is faced with two detectives who claim a copycat killer is on the loose and his unpublished fairytales containing children who meet particularly violent ends are his blueprint. When Katurian is told that his brain-damaged elder brother Michal is the murderer, his complicity in the crime breaks the earnest scribbler - he cares little for his own life or that of his seemingly monstrous brother, only that his stories live on. Michal however suggests that he should burn most of his stories "'cos [he's] only got about two that aren't gonna make people go out and kill kids". This web of culpability the play weaves is made even more intricate by the revelation that Michal was tortured by his parents so that his harrowing screams would filter into the talented young Katurian's dreams and turn him into a great writer. It is obvious that both brothers will meet a grizzly end: there's an inevitable cyclical feel to the play, further reinforced by the appearance of a cleaner at the beginning and end, preparing the room for the next seditious writer.  

Ultimately, the play is a deadly stalemate: the single-minded artist committed to his free imagination and his craft set against the hypocritical consumers of the art, who bay for blood and then blame the artist for their tastes and conditioning. We all criticise the Side Bar of Shame but the Daily Mail Online still has the most hits for a news website. The script is full of these contradictions, often laced with sarcasm, which are used to ask tough, almost metaphysical questions about the nature of art and artists and through this both interrogation and storytelling become interlinked, one and the same. The apparent responsibility of the writer to society, at odds with the responsibilities the writer may feel to his art, and the power of literature are investigated by McDonagh although never satisfactorily dealt with. Katurian's final story, before his summary execution, in which Michal accepts his torture for the sake of his brother's art feels ultimately glib - that art is worth the systematic torture of a seven year old boy. 



In Guy Evans' production there are some strong performances. Matt Hunt is the standout as velvet-jacketed and chinos-wearing Katurian, especially when he goes all Jackanory storyteller, reading his gruesome tales, whilst Ajay Stevenson as Michal creates a subtle and convincing portrayal of a damaged young man in awe of his brother. Richard Holmes, brilliant in last season's Zoo Story, however, was below par as Detective Tupolski and, as Tupolski's violent foil Detective Ariel, Adam Worton never convinced. Both lacked the sadism and sociopathy inherent in McDonagh's writing.  

This feels more a issue of the direction than the talent on display. McDonagh's is a theatre of menace, much like that of Pinter, and the humour ought to come from the relief breaking through the despair rather than a 'playing for laughs'. In this the two policemen had the wrong approach to the performance, they were more chirpy double act than chilling executioners; more Cannon and Ball than Goldberg and McCann. The menace (to use the word again) was absent from their performance, the threat was muted. But, when the play got it right there was a real energy. The middle section, where Katurian and Michal are confined to their cell awaiting further interrogation was a highlight in this respect - especially when the humour rose out of the two men's argument over what compelled Michal to kill and where he had come in the school discus competition.  

The Pillowman is certainly a different play to the usual fare of amateur dramatics societies (although the Lace Market Theatre does have previous in this in their staging of a pair of Beckett's in their last season) and whilst not everything convinces in the performance of this caustic and open-ended morality tale there's more than enough in the performances of the two brothers to make this a worthwhile evening.

Pillowman plays at The Lace Market Theatre from Thursday 6 November to Friday 8 November 2014

Lace Market Theatre website