The Pillowman

Martin McDonagh
Royal National Theatre
Royal National Theatre Cottesloe

Martin McDonagh is the enfant terrible of Irish theatre although his name is more Irish than the man. For the first time, in The Pillowman, he writes a play set elsewhere. This is an unnamed totalitarian (possibly Soviet) state of the kind imagined by Kafka or Vassily Sigarev.

In-yer-face theatre rarely comes more shocking than this but, surprisingly, by the end McDonagh reveals himself to have a sentimental side. It takes some time for this to become apparent and a number of members of the audience with weaker stomachs failed to make it past the interval.

Katurian Katurian Katurian - not a misprint - is a writer of jet-black fairy tales that make the Grimm's seem like Enid Blyton. All of his 400 works bar one are about children that get abused and killed and it is no surprise to learn that he and his spastic brother have suffered terribly at their parents' hands.

When KKK's stories start to be re-enacted in real life, he and his brother Michal are hauled in for brutal interrogation by two policemen who write their own laws. They also have a hilarious line in interrogation which leaves those with a dark sense of humour doubled up with laughter.

It doesn't take too long to discover who is the perpetrator of the crimes. Then the real horrors in the lives of all four of the principal characters begin to emerge with gut-wrenching clarity.

Just when all seems too awful to be depicted on stage, McDonagh cleverly twists the tail of the play with great dramatic effect.

The Pillowman is extremely funny and has hidden depths that will leave the amateur psychologists in the audience with much food for thought.

John Crowley directs with great skill and timing so that, with only a couple of lapses, the tension gradually builds as the humour flows. He is brilliantly served by all four actors with speaking parts. Jim Broadbent and Nigel Lindsay are extremely funny as the couple of Ortonesque coppers, while David Tennant gives a flawless performance as the writer. In a smaller supporting role as the mentally crippled Mikhal, Adam Godley is as good as any of them.

Scott Pask's deliberately underlit design is generally as black as the play. There is a seminal scene that, while unquestionably blasphemous, is visually striking. This depicts a new Messiah's trials and tribulations in Gilbert and George images.

Martin McDonagh's plays always have a cruel streak but with acting that may win awards and entertainment of this calibre, the evening can be deemed a pleasure (provided that you can make it past the break).

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

*Some links, including Amazon,,, ATG Tickets, LOVEtheatre, BTG Tickets, Ticketmaster, LW Theatres and QuayTickets, are affiliate links for which BTG may earn a small fee at no extra cost to the purchaser.

Are you sure?