The Pillowman by MARTIN McDONAGH, , Writer - Martin McDONAGH, Director - MATTHEW DUNSTER, PRODUCTION DESIGNER - Anna Fleischle, Lighting - Neil Austin, Video - Dick Straker, Movement - Chi-San Howard, DUKE OF YORK’S THEATRE, 2023, Credit: Johan Persson/

The Pillowman

Reviewer's rating

The mind of Martin McDonagh is a fascinating place to be in, but not for the faint of heart. In the title words of his latest play to date, you must expect “A very, very, very dark matter” – and then some. Matricide (“The beauty queen of  Leenane”), accidental (or not) fatal shooting of a father (“The lonesome west”), and a man in search of his missing left hand (“Behanding in Spokane”) are just the tip of a scary iceberg in the world of the playwright-turned-screenwriter and film director.

Evenings at the theatre don’t come darker than the 145 minutes (including interval) of “The Pillowman”, McDonagh’s 2004 morbid yet hilarious smash hit, revived now in an almost perfect production.

The original production at the National Theatre starred David Tennant and Jim Broadbent. Tennat’s role is now played by a woman, the brilliant Lily Allen. She plays Katurian K. Katurian (“my parents were funny people”), an obscure writer of short stories, mostly for children, brutally interrogated by the authorities in an unnamed totalitarian state, in an unknown era, regarding a spate of murders that bear disturbing similarities to her stories.

How did the authorities (very 1984-ish) even know about the mere existence of these unpublished stories? Is life imitating art or is there something more sinister going on? And on the wider scale of things, what is the role of the artist in society, how far his or her moral responsibility should go and what price do we (yes, all of us, art makers and art users alike) pay for freedom of expression?

All these important questions are tragically timely; news headlines from more and more countries already sound more terrifying than anything McDonagh might have concocted, and more cruel than Katurian’s truly nightmarish fables. Her stories offer horrid fortunes for helpless children, including amputation of toes (amputation of fingers was also prominent in McDonagh’s recent film, “The banshees of Inisherin”) and being literally crucified and then buried alive. Does she deserve to be punished for even making up such atrocities (in the tradition of the uncensored Grimm brothers tales, which scared and scarred generations of children)? The good cop/bad cop double act of Tupolski (Steve Pemberton) and Ariel (Daniel Millar in the performance I attended, subbing for Paul Kaye) certainly believe so. Is tough childhood can justify bad deeds? Tupolski (a violent drunk like his father, in one of the play’s best jokes) thinks yes, while Ariel (another tough childhood survivor) prefers to abstain. And is there any glimmer of hope in this story? Katurian would like to think that if her stories will outlive her, and not get burned by Ariel, it’ll be a happy end. Poor soul. This must be McDonagh’s least optimistic work so far, and so bleak is his vantage point that we might as well kill ourselves and get it over with.

The gender swap of Katurian works very well with Allen, in top form (her experience as a singer must help her amazing vocal control, handling tons of text with hardly a pause to breathe). Seeing a fragile woman suffers such violence in the hands of men way bigger and stronger than her is hard to watch, but very effective.

Director Matthew Dunster, not a stranger to horror AND allene, having previously directed her in “2:22”, is doing a great job with the black part of this black comedy (assisted by fabulous set/lighting/sound/video design), but the actual comedy is less developed unfortunately. Only Pemberton, in the role that Jim Broadbent so memorably created, infuses much needed humor to the proceedings (interestingly, this part is played by an actress in a current Israeli production of the play), with able support from Millar. The part of Katurian’s brother, Michal (Matthew Tennyson), however, is not fully cracked or solved. It doesn’t seem like the talented actor’s fault, but more of a directional misstep. Michal is supposed to be autistic and childish, but is played like quite a shrewd guy. These are the details that makes this production short of perfection. Otherwise, it’s a sensational show that rattles the mind and stirs the soul, and will not be easily forgotten. Yes, nightmares included.