Review: The Pillowman

It’s a thumbs up from us

What’s the difference between reality and a story? In The Pillowman the distinction blurs early on.

Katurian Katurian, writer, is being interrogated by agents Tupolski and Ariel in a cell because his stories have just predicted a string of gruesome murders. Next door, his brother Michal’s screams echo through the walls.

Throughout the play, brutal questioning, story sketches and touching scenes of brotherly love are interweaved to create an at times clever and tricksy, at times horrifying narrative.

Acting-wise, the production never puts a foot wrong. Claire Bowman plays Katurian (the cast is entirely gender-blind), and makes for a very compelling story-teller, pinpointing a tone halfway between character and narrator.

Her Katurian, a highly nuanced portrayal, is a tricky hero. The mingling of her love and repulsion for her brother is carefully portrayed; she never lets the audience wholly adore or despise Katurian.

“Like emotional bungee-jumping, this production will have you laughing, crying and trembling in fear”

Agents Ariel (Jonathan Purkiss) and Tupolski (Dominic Applewhite) make for great opposites. Ariel, intense, brooding, violent, and Tupolski, snide, self-important, sadistic, alternate between good and bad cop, villain and hero.

Applewhite brings out a lot of humour in Tupolski, and Purkiss’s physicality is spot-on and very subtle. All that marks his temper is a quivering lip, single tear or clenched, trembling fists; none of his movements are wasted.

Katurian’s brother Michal (Emma D’Arcy), is the play’s standout character. The contorted, twitching, hunched, difficulty with which D’Arcy plays the abused and tortured Michal is astounding. She was drenched in sweat, even just a few minutes into her first scene, a marker of how physically exhausting a role she plays.

The first time we see Michal, he is trying to tell the story of ‘The Little Green Pig’ and is constantly interrupted by Katurian’s tortured screams; he answers by screaming back. The scene, in alternating between sweet story and disturbing noise, is typical of The Pillowman.

Like emotional bungee-jumping, this production will have you laughing, crying and trembling in fear in the space of a minute.

The music opening each half is harsh, highly rhythmic and creates an unsettling backdrop to an already dark play. Director Tom Bailey also uses the entire space very cleverly, making downstage colourless and harsh to show the ‘real’ and interrogation scenes in the play. Upstage is a mixture of forest and bedroom, and serves as the performance space for most of the play’s story sketches.

The Pillowman is high-quality stuff. It would stand out in the West End, let alone Oxford. We won’t see anything quite like it grace the dreaming spires for a while to come.