Culture theatre

Review: The Pillowman

The Pillowman is a 2003 play by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, a darkly satirical narrative that focuses on a writer (Katurian) and her brother (Michal) who are kept in custody by two sinister policemen after a series of child murders that echo Katurian’s own twisted tales. With its heavy emphasis on child killing and police brutality, this doesn’t at first scream ‘student theatre’ but this production flawlessly manages to be both horrifying and laugh-out-loud entertaining as it shifts from moments of intense terror to comedy in seconds. 

Marianne James artfully manages to portray the complexities of Katurian, a writer whose love for her brother and intense dedication to her storytelling are the chief motivators of her character. The decision to shift the gender from the traditionally male to female uncovered a different side to the narrative, one which felt fresh and contemporary, influencing the character dynamics in interesting and diverse ways that I imagine would not be so palpable with a male lead. The threat of violence hangs heavy over all of her scenes, and her ability to be both vulnerable and defiant was striking. 

Gavin Fleming’s command over every scene as the fearsome Tupolski was tangible. Providing most of the laughs with his quick command of the text, Fleming was also the most formidable, as it felt like at any moment his composure might break and unleash a torrent of violent ferocity. His relationship with James’s Katurian built in an interesting manner as the narrative progressed, with the two sharing moments of seeming understanding before breaking back into the harshness of the interrogator–prisoner dynamic. 

Ariel, played by Jake Rich, whilst not commanding the stage to quite the same degree as Fleming, was still a distinct figure of menace throughout. Supposedly supplying the brawn to Tupolski’s brain, his performance became surprisingly nuanced towards the end of the second act, and I was left questioning whether I should have been paying closer attention to his character all along. 

Stepan Mysko von Schultze’s depiction of Michal was remarkable in his ability to accurately convey the learning difficulties central to his character, but without being gratuitous or offensive. The tender moments between him and James were amongst some of the strongest in the production, with both actors conveying the turbulent and complex relationship between these two siblings. 

The scenes of interrogation and imprisonment are interwoven with silhouettes of Katurian’s stories, and it is these that provide some of the most beautiful and disturbing moments as we are given an insight into the world of Katurian’s mind. Each tale was given a different storytelling method, with song, puppets, shadow puppets, and masks being used to add intriguing visuals that gave the stories an other-worldly quality. James’s storytelling was always enthralling, with her natural singing and acting abilities capturing the audience’s attention completely. 

Overall this production was hampered only by a few fluffed lines, no more than one would expect from opening night, and the strength of the entire cast, supported by the quietly intriguing Eugenie Nevin, was extremely impressive. Director Tom Fisher’s clear eye for perfect casting and his dedication to inventive storytelling has resulted in a stunningly macabre piece of theatre that you would be woe to miss.

Reya Muller

Reya (she/her) is a Theatre Editor at the Oxford Blue. Outside of her degree, Reya spends most of her time involved in student theatre and is an avid writer of both prose and poetry. She was an editor for the lockdown art collective Hypaethral and has published articles at the Blue ranging from gushing about Michaela Coel to describing how best to fry bread (never too much butter). In her spare time, she can be found either making or eating dumplings.