Unlike most of Martin McDonagh’s other plays, The Pillowman isn’t set in Ireland. There’s no Irish brogue softening the language, no midlands characters going crazy, no Catholic versus Protestant battles. But there’s more tension than one play can normally contain: there’s threat, violence, storytelling, familial love and damage – all the core ingredients of a great Irish drama, it’s just this one is set in a mythical totalitarian state.
Katurian is a writer. He’s been writing macabre children’s stories for years. They’re never published but he reads them to his brother, Michal, who is “a slow learner” in Katurian’s terms, or a “retard” according to the other characters. The play opens with Katurian being interrogated in a police station. He doesn’t know why he’s there, but he’s been blindfolded and he’s in big trouble. The two policemen, Tupolski and Ariel, taunt and threaten him, trying to get a confession out of him. It’s terrifying and also laugh out loud funny, a difficult mix to pull off successfully.
TUPOLSKI: Have you been reading the papers I’ve got in front of me?
KATURIAN: I haven’t been reading …
TUPOLSKI: Papers which, for all you know, may have some immensely classified, very very secret thing.
KATURIAN: My eyes just caught the titles, just glancing.
TUPOLSKI: Oh, like your peripheral vision?
TUPOLSKI: But, hang on, for it to be your peripheral vision, you’d have to be turned around this way … (Tupolski turns sideways on, glancing down at the papers.) See, like this way. Like sidewards, like this way … […]
KATURIAN: I meant my peripheral vision at the bottom of my eyes.
TUPOLSKI: Ohh, the peripheral vision at the bottom of your eyes.
KATURIAN: I don’t know if there’s a word for that.
TUPOLSKI: There isn’t.
The laughter is so effective because the more you laugh the more serious McDonagh makes the play and the more dire the consequences. It’s the sort of laughter you try to disguise as a cough because you feel guilty for finding it so amusing. The audience discovers, along with Katurian, that there has been a spate of murders of children, all following the grisly details in his unpublished stories. And little amputated toes have been discovered in his house. Or have they? Are the police just saying these things because they want to trap Katurian?
McDonagh has crafted The Pillowman so beautifully that the surprises come thick and fast and you are never sure what is story and what is happening. The revelations are astonishing and perfectly timed. There’s a moment to catch your breath, a smile, a laugh, and then – bang – another revelation or twist.
TUPOLSKI: I’m just tired of everybody round here using their shitty childhoods to justify their own shitty behaviour. My dad was a violent alcoholic. Am I a violent alcoholic? Yes I am, but that was my personal choice. I freely admit it.
ARIEL: I would like to get back to torturing the prisoner now.
TUPOLSKI: Get back to torturing the prisoner now. You’ve kept him waiting ages.
One of the main themes is the power of stories, the writer’s responsibility, and the writer’s ego. Katurian believes in his tales: he believes he’s an undiscovered genius. He doesn’t mind being tortured and killed so long as his writing survives him: it’s his only chance at immortality.
KATURIAN: If they came to me right now and said, “We’re going to burn two out of the three of you – you, your brother, or your stories,” I’d have them burn you first, I’d have them burn me second, and I’d have it be the stories they saved.
The whole play is a dark and tender fairytale, as dark and tender as Katurian’s Pillowman – a character you’ll never forget once you’ve heard his story.
Publisher: Dramatists Play Service
Cast: 5M, 1F (or 2F)