19 June 2023
THE PILLOWMAN (Duke of York’s Theatre) Review
This production was originally due to run in 2020 with Steve Pemberton and Aaron Taylor-Johnson. Postponed due to Covid, it was, thankfully, rescheduled and is currently playing in the West End. Talk about the hottest ticket of the season!
I have seen enough Martin McDonagh plays to know he can be a bit hit and miss for me. That said, I believe “The Pillowman” is considered to be one of his best, if not the best, plays. McDonagh wrote it in the mid-90s, with the 2003 premiere at the National Theatre boasting the cast of David Tennant, Jim Broadbent, Nigel Lindsay, and Adam Godley. I didn’t get to see it at the time, and it’s always been a bit of “the one that got away”.
The post-Covid casting was somewhat of a surprise: the main character underwent a gender swap with the casting of Lily Allen. Let’s talk about the plot to see why this is relevant.
Katurian, a writer of disturbing short stories most of which involve children suffering great harm, finds himself in a police station being questioned by detective Tupolski and officer Ariel. It transpires that several murders have taken place in a manner that follows Katurian’s stories, so the police want to know whether he or his brother Michal, who is held for questioning next door, have anything to do with these killings.
Although several scenes threaten violence or depict aftermath thereof, one scene has Ariel pounding the daylights out of Katurian. Now then… The idea of Nigel Lindsay beating up David Tennant on stage (or, even more so, that of Željko Ivanek beating up Billy Crudup in the 2005 Broadway production) is a stark visualisation of the totalitarian state in which the play, by its own admission, takes place. Injustice, police brutality, it’s all there, but it’s also pretty much what it says on the tin. With Lily Allen playing Katurian, you now have the imposing 6-ft tall and broad-shouldered Paul Kaye beating up the 5-ft woman who is so skinny and translucent, you feel like you should be sneaking backstage during the intermission just to feed her a sandwich. This is a very different proposition now, but I think that, instead of making it somehow more interesting, it detracts from the impact of the story. I didn’t have any expectations going in, but, in the end, I wish McDonagh and Dunster, who directed, just stuck with the original genders.
In addition to the matter of Lily Allen being a woman in this role generically, there is also Allen specifically. A good chunk of the play is Katurian monologuing by way of telling stories. Allen might be a fine actress, but she is not an engaging one (not to me, anyway). She is not the sort of performer who can stand on stage reading a shopping list and keep the audience captivated and clinging to every word. This role needs Raul Esparza or Rufus Sewell or Bill Nighy, perhaps even Andrew Scott or Alfred Molina in a pinch. They are the ones who can narrate for a bit and then narrate some more and have everyone in the auditorium hold their breath. Allen, unfortunately, is downright boring. When she just stands there and tells her story, the combination of the pitch and tone of her voice falls flat. There were several places where I actively wished she would stop talking. Additionally, at the very start, there is a rather fast-paced exchange between Katurian and Tupolski (though, to be fair, I think it’s fast due to a directorial choice; there is no need for it). Whilst Pemberton speaks just as fast as, if not faster than Allen, he annunciates, so he is easily understood. Allen, speaking at speed, was mumbling and hard to understand. Worst of all, I don’t think Allen can fully sell her character to the audience. In this day and age when hardly anything on stage can truly shock, she seems unconvincing as a writer with a traumatic background who channels feelings into creepy stories.
In all seriousness, if McDonagh wanted to change something about the play, I’d consider doing something the Jewish and Chinese references in in. Katurian’s gender wasn’t broke, so there was no need to fix it.
Now on to the better bits of acting. Steve Pemberton was an absolute delight as Tupolski. There is a bit of the play where he gets to tell a story, and he got a long ovation at the end of it, which isn’t something you see often (Olivia Le Andersen in “Bad Jews” is the only other case like that I can recall seeing). Pemberton is menacing in a psychological way, and, rough and bad-tempered though his partner is, he makes it clear that it’s with him that you don’t want to be left alone in the room. Paul Kaye’s take on Ariel was delightful: an oaf with a short fuse, yet whose surprising backstory feels genuine. Matthew Tennyson as Michal, who is “slow to get things”, was interesting to watch. I thought his performance toed a fine line between making his character funny yet not making a mockery of a person with learning disabilities. I’m sure plenty of people will agree, whilst others will think he swung too far one way or the other.
The combination of Matthew Dunster’s direction and Anna Fleischle’s design didn’t always hit the spot for me (the proverbial Chekhov’s pillow was particularly disappointing). The projections really didn’t add anything and have become a cliche over the last few years.
Don’t get me wrong: the play is absolutely delicious, if grim, though I still think McDonagh’s “Lieutenant of Inishmore” is his best play. Lily Allen and uneven direction notwithstanding, it’s treat. That’s, of course, assuming you’re up for 2.5 hours of child abuse.
Cheapskate enjoyment value: £4.
P.S.: Apparently Allen said in an interview that “it would be nice if a few people fainted” and that she was expecting people to be walking out in horror. Well, as Hanya Yanagihara would’ve said to Martin McDonagh, “hold my beer”. Given that people are not walking out of “A Little Life“, they are certainly not going to walk out of “The Pillowman”. If they did, it would be from Allen’s boring delivery rather than the play’s grusomeness (but not to worry, everyone stayed put).
And also… Katurian Katurian Katurian? Pretty sure Joseph Heller had already cornered the market on this with Major Major Major Major. Feels less like a tribute and more like reaching for a cheap laugh.