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The Pillowman review: Martin McDonagh’s early play gets a pin-sharp, meticulously controlled staging from Lyric and Prime Cut

Theatre: Emma Jordan directs a well-balanced ensemble cast in the playwright’s depiction of a writer suspected of child murder in a totalitarian state

The Pillowman

Lyric Theatre, Belfast
★★★★☆

The central character of Martin McDonagh’s early play The Pillowman is Katurian K Katurian (his middle name is also Katurian), a mild-mannered, prolific writer of moral fables, most of which revolve around the unimaginable suffering of abused children. It comes as no surprise to learn that only one has been published, in a magazine of dubious reputation.

Emphasis on the letter K is McDonagh’s none-too-subtle hint of the dramatic world we are about to enter. Katurian is a citizen of an anonymous country ruled by a repressive totalitarian regime, a Kafkaesque universe where state-sanctioned arrests for unspecified crimes, cruel mind games, and physical and psychological torture pass for normality. Under interrogation by two menacing detectives, Tupolski (Abigail McGibbon) and Ariel (Steven Calvert), he assumes that he is suspected of political radicalism.

He could not be more mistaken. The officers are on the case of a string of child murders in the locality, and he is the chief suspect. His “little stories” carry uncanny parallels to the horrid circumstances in which the children have died, and his hysterical denials are falling on stony ground.

Through the character of Katurian, delivered in this Lyric-Prime Cut co-production with pin-sharp precision by Keith Singleton, McDonagh makes the case for a writer, not only in the selection of subject matter but also in the chosen narrative methodology. Equally, he defends the freedom of an individual to be a one-off figure of their own choosing. Why, he asks, should an independent-thinking piglet not be bright green, or a devout little girl not pretend to be Jesus and undergo crucifixion? Such decisions simply amount to narrative twists in a cautionary tale, a piece of legerdemain by a talented writer.

Working in tandem with her long-time creative collaborator and designer Ciaran Bagnall, the production’s director Emma Jordan, pitches us with meticulous control into a starkly lit concrete torture chamber where there is no place for rational argument.

Early on in proceedings, Katurian jokily attributes his bizarre name to the fact that his parents were, to put it mildly, peculiar. This indisputable fact is illustrated by the strikingly expressive parental interventions of Jude Quinn and Rosie McClelland, who as Father and Mother tiptoe like malevolent goblins through a grim, alternative fairy-tale world.

Bit by bit, police questioning chips away at all conceived notions of reality. McGibbon and Calvert swagger and posture, pivoting around their victim, switching good cop-bad cop roles, contradicting each other, turning Katurian’s futile arguments back on him until he scarcely knows which way he is facing.

Their trump card is his brother Michal, a slow-witted man child, for whom he cares and by whom he is emotionally manipulated. As Michal, David Murphy carefully balances these aspects of his personality, particularly in a chilling power-struggle sequence, illuminated by the horrific childhood experiences that have shaped their adult selves.

Mercilessly and, at times, repetitively, McDonagh conjures up a string of increasingly tense scenarios in which nothing is quite as it seems and the victim’s worst fears crowd in. The well-balanced ensemble cast effectively edges closer and closer to a manic, dread-laden, theatrical Rubik’s cube. And there’s laughter, too – laughter without humour. A deadly combination.

The Pillowman is at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, until Saturday, June 15th

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