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The Tales We Tell

Benedict Morrison

The Pillowman
By Martin McDonagh
Dir. Thomas Bailey
29 October to 1 November at the Oxford Playhouse

It would be uncontroversial, perhaps, to suggest that there is something distasteful about Martin McDonagh’s 1995 play, The Pillowman. It is a macabre plunge into the dark imaginations of its central character, Katurian Katurian, a writer of gruesome fairy tales which out-grim Grimm, who finds himself under suspicion for a series of child murders. This production does nothing to shy away from the play’s inherent murk, and horror seeps out from every corner of the magnificent set; in the foreground, the peeling greys of the police station’s walls mark out an arena for bureaucratic violence while, hidden for the most part beyond a tantalising gauze, a derelict site of remembered or imagined outrages haunts the edges of the action. When the violence comes, it rises in horrific suddenness and with a rare precision and conviction. Let it be understood: with its unflinching physical force played in earnest, The Pillowman is an uncomfortable watch.

The production’s unapologetic toughness only accounts for a portion of this discomfort. It is the combination of violence and comedy which really sets the teeth on edge, the collision of the banalities of the police procedural and the underpinning horror. This is gallows humour—here, quite literally dancing beneath or, indeed, atop the gallows—and every laugh is accompanied by a shocked wince at the material that is being made funny. The play is, in the Freudian sense, humorous; the disconnect between material and register—between depraved narratives of child cruelty and wisecrack delivery—stirs up discomfort. The actors deliver many of their lines with the rapidity of a screwball comedy from the 1930s, the difference being that, in The Pillowman, the lines concern heinous crimes. Tupolski, the senior policeman, cites as part of his interrogation strategy the technique of destabilising the prisoner with ‘asinine nonsense’, and the audience is destabilised just as effectively.

If the generation of this sense of unease were the production’s only end, it might feel gratuitous. However, there are, beneath the horror, more compelling veins of thought, more sustaining though no less chilling. The play’s characters, in ways diverse but equally damaging, are haunted by inescapable pasts, traumas long-thought buried. The characters’ commitment to artistic creativity or professional advancement is exposed as sublimation and not remedy. In sympathy with this interest in the return of the repressed, the play obsesses over its own structural repetitions. Stories are revisited, and concealed histories emerge through the cracks at the edge of discourse. The production, like its source text, becomes a network of reminders; some cast members multi-role, the superb derelict set becomes site of a number of childhood horrors, and gestures and inflections are repeated. This oppressive recursion operates at the level of the individual, but also at a broader social level. The totalitarian State in which Katurian is grilled is an echo of so many regimes of the twentieth century, and its monstrous administration operates according to replicable procedures (dictating whether a prisoner about to be executed should be blindfolded before or after he is led to the room where he will be shot); serial killers not only commit murders in series, but are also informed and inspired by the violence of others; and the play itself is a literary dystopia written in an absurdist mode that has gripped European imagination since the writings of Kafka. This is history as plague, infecting the sensibilities and imaginations of individuals and cultures across time. McDonagh’s play seems to wink defiantly at any potential censor; there is no point in denying violence when it infests so completely the surrounding culture.

And it is this cultural reflexivity which marks the play’s most staggering gambit. Far from oppositional, Katurian’s storytelling runs in parallel with that of the repressive State. There is a vertiginous mise-en-abyme surrounding the policemen’s claim that they like executing writers because it ‘sends out a signal’; what is that signal but a cautionary tale of their own composition? Stories—both political and literary—call things into being. The murders are called into being by Katurian’s stories; and Katurian’s guilt is called into being by the State. As Ariel stands and—in hand-shaking, tight-throated agonies of despair—says that he will destroy anyone who harms a child, he struggles to summon forth the society he craves with his words, and his illocutionary language resonates with promises, threats, and declarations. Literature is refigured as a totalitarian force, capable of generating hope but also horror; this remains a genuinely frightening notion, and McDonagh’s play does nothing to diminish the implications of its own self-interrogation.

This notion of performative language—words generating action—resonates with the production’s much-discussed choice to cast without consideration of gender. Far from being the politically correct gesture that some detractors may dismiss it as, this decision is in tune with the play’s thesis on the power of stories. As Katurian and Michal are insistently referred to as men, as brothers, as hes, their embodiment by two female actors sets up an acute tension. This State is a world in which every element of identity is subject to the definitions and categorisations of Authority. This terrible resignation is on display even before the play begins. Katurian sits on stage as the audience enters, his head covered in a bag, unmoving, held in an uncanny calm. When the auditorium suddenly shocks with relentless, percussive music, the sounds powerfully suggest an affect which the blindfolded figure, awaiting instruction from the Establishment, resists. Katurian is manipulated, gendered, and condemned according to the language—the stories—of his captors. Everyone is a storyteller, and most of the stories they have are diseased.

This production of the unnerving play is uniformly superb. As Katurian, Claire Bowman succeeds in moving seamlessly between moments of resignation and of overwhelming distress, the character struggling as he finds himself implicated in the very terror that he has sought to fight. Emma D’Arcy’s performance as Michal is a masterclass in physical and verbal control, the complete manifestation of the damaged character quite brilliant, revelling in the comedy even while undercutting it with unbearable pathos. Dominic Applewhite’s performance sings with a kind of smug indifference that speaks volumes about the nature of bureaucratic justice. And Jonathan Purkiss as Ariel carries in his movement such tension that every line and gesture become a glimpse of a subtextual world of despair. Director Thomas Bailey’s production is unflinching, and it marks a remarkable act of courage and commitment. It is rare to find a play which so unstintingly interrogates its own processes, and this intelligent, elegant, terrifying production serves it admirably.

Benedict Morrison is reading for a DPhil in English at Merton College, Oxford. He is Editor of ORbits at the Oxonian Review.