Preview: The Pillowman

Ben Murphy takes a look at The Pillowman, 3rd week at the Playhouse

“Viewers will do well not to be shocked by this performance”

From the moment we enter the rehearsal space and see The Pillowman’s main character sitting on a chair with her head inside a bag, the play grabs its audience by the throat and does not let go.

Whilst billed as a political piece about a totalitarian state, the theme is only really touched upon for comedic purposes. The drama is ultimately human in nature, focusing on childhood, abuse and empathy through sustained dialogue and arresting physical theatre.

The gender-neutral casting of the play is perhaps one of the most significant  strings to The Pillowman’s bow. Director Thomas Bailey tells me that this decision enabled him to get the best actors available.

The two female actors cast in male roles, Claire Bowman and Emma D’Arcy, both deserve high praise for making challenging roles their own.

The breadth of the role of Katurian, played by Bowman, is vast: there are political issues and a hint of perversity at play within his bleak and gruesome work, as well as a dark past which unravels over the course of the play.

D’Arcy’s treatment of Michal, Katurian’s brother, is equally compelling and considered.

The play pulls no punches in using his disability to add to its grim nature, which D’Arcy took great pains to accurately depict, considering the nature of his condition with sensitivity.

“Physicality is maintained throughout the entirety of the play”

The tender dynamic between the two brothers, alone in a prison cell awaiting almost certain death, is counterbalanced by the striking depiction of interrogation and torture techniques from the two policemen, Tupolski and Ariel, played by Dominic Applewhite and Jonathan Purkiss.

Almost immediately we see Katurian wrestled to the ground by the fanatical Ariel, a display of physicality that is maintained throughout the entirety of the play.

Viewers will do well not to be shocked by this performance. That the cast can maintain their focus in roles that must ultimately remain serious, whilst assigning such importance to the show’s comedic element, is another testament to their skill in acting out a constantly evolving piece that relies on a maintained level of tension.

The play is an epic undertaking and one that requires a great deal of reverence in its treatment but also ambition on the part of the crew.

The blend of a gritty and commanding portrayal of complex and intimidating characters with a stunning set should place this production as one of the highlights of Oxford theatre this term.

The Pillowman runs at the Oxford Playhouse from 29th October until 1st November. For more information click here.