The Pillowman

Martin McDonagh pits the lowly writer against a totalitarian system suspicious of creativity in his finest play to date, currently running in the Lyric Theatre in Belfast

The pen is mightier than the sword  It’s a truism that has been upheld on countless occasions down through the centuries, most recently in a Paris street just a couple of months ago. When political dispensations feel themselves to be under scrutiny or threat, more often than not it’s the writers they turn on. 
 
In what is, arguably, Martin McDonagh’s finest play to date, the writer in question is an obscure, unpublished scribbler of short stories, rejoicing in the name of Katurian K. (for Katurian) Katurian. Nothing in McDonagh’s rich, acutely observed texts is ever there by chance, and his repetition of the letter K loudly echoes the plight of Franz Kafka’s Josef K, a man arrested and prosecuted by a distant, oppressive authority for a crime that is never revealed.
 
Given the regime in which he has grown up, coupled with his effortless verbal fluency, young Katurian is not slow to sum up, for early benefit of the audience, the perilous situation in which he finds himself: 'A writer in a totalitarian state is interrogated about the gruesome content of his short stories and their similarities to a number of child murders that are happening in his town.'
 
Thus, McDonagh – also writer and director of the films In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths – sets the scene for the bleak, thickly layered, multi-faceted plot which he is about to unfold.
 
 
The setting is very far removed from his more familiar dramatic territory – the hills of Connemara, the remote islands of Inishmore and Inishmaan. This place is nowhere and everywhere. It is cold, inhuman, without sentiment, a milieu where creativity is crushed and truth is subverted and turned on its head. Religion, family life, law-making of sorts proceed in the outside world, but they are all tainted and skewed. Nothing is quite as it seems.
 
The lights go up on a bare, sparsely furnished interrogation room. Its concrete block walls are crumbling; sunlight thinly filters through a filthy, small-paned window. From a cell along the corridor can be heard the sounds of human agony.
 
In keeping with director Andrew Flynn’s dark fairy tale vision, Owen MacCárthaigh has created a space that is a cross between Rapunzel’s tower and a gulag torture chamber, where the physical presence of Katurian and his investigators, Ariel and Topolski, is dwarfed and minimised. It offers a powerful visual metaphor for the vain struggle of man against the system.
 
On one side of a table sits a pleasant-faced, neatly dressed young man, polite and deferential towards two blustering police officers, who specialise in a well-practiced good-cop-bad-cop routine. Their task is to extract evidence that will lead to multiple charges of murder and infanticide, and they will not be deflected from it.
 
Before long, Peter Campion’s perfectly-judged Katurian is rising to their bait, cursing and swearing with equal ferocity and leading them helpfully through the gruesome twists and turns of his stories, in which little children are the unfortunate protagonists. He frequently uses the word ‘little’ in his narrations, delivering it with a sweetness and innocence which is in horrible contrast to the subject matter.
 
Left alone to reflect on his presumed crimes, and with the threat of the execution of his brother Michal hanging over him, the writer opens up to the audience his horror-filled memories of family life. The concrete walls silently part to reveal, through Ciaran Bagnall’s gold-tinted lighting, a series of grimly beautiful cinematic dumb shows, some illustrating the abuse to which Michal and Katurian were victim, others re-enacting scenes from the stories.
 
Cut to a complete change of scene. A psychologically damaged young man is lying on a stained mattress, listening to Ariel and Topolski laying into his brother with all their muscly might. When a bloodied Katurian staggers in from the adjoining cell, an emotional conversation begins. Here McDonagh’s dialogue is fine beyond description, swirling and diving into the depths of a shared existence known only to the participants. 
 
Campion and Michael Ford-Fitzgerald are an excellent pairing, brilliantly timing the overlapping lines, forging a fraternal relationship in which Michal’s drooling, dull-featured face and knowing wit are offset by the urbane goodness of the talented, compassionate Katurian. The facts – if, indeed, they are facts – that emerge are shocking beyond belief, and will confront Katurian with a dilemma which can only be solved within the spirit of the stories and their family history.
 
In the final act, the tension falls away a little, leading towards a climax which is unexpected, but not necessarily in the way that the previous dynamic scenes may suggest.
 
Gary Lydon and David McSavage’s performances threaten to stray into comic territory, with McSavage going for easy laughs as he relates Topolski's own tale of a deaf, retarded Chinese child and a railway line. Lydon, however, handles with terrific flair the revelations of the dark secrets lurking in his own childhood, and adds a nice human touch to the unexpected appearance of a parodied character straight out of Katurian’s only sweet, but politically devastating, story.
 
It is nothing but a pleasure to see this play finally given its Irish premiere in this well-rounded, hard-hitting production by Galway’s Decadent Theatre in association with the Lyric. It Is not an easy watch – the subject matter is challenging and deliberately unpleasant – but it is relevant, contemporary and unflinchingly honest. The Pillowman is McDonagh at his unrelenting best.
 
The Pillowman runs until in the Lyric Theatre, Belfast until April 16.     
 
Do you want Culture NI to continue reviewing plays like this across Northern Ireland? If so, tell the Arts Council of Northern Ireland why you love the website using this online form. An email will be automatically sent to the Arts Council and the Department of Culture, Arts & Leisure.