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Review: The Pillowman @ The Oxford Playhouse

This review was originally written for Cherwell

Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman is as dark a comedy as it is possible to find. Set predominantly in an interrogation room of some unidentified totalitarian state, the plot revolves around the questioning of Katurian (Claire Bowman) and his ‘retarded’ brother Michal (Emma D’Arcy) over a spate of brutal child murders that bear uncanny resemblance to a series of twisted quasi-fairytales penned by the former. Revelations abound as the brothers’ harrowing childhood is slowly understood and their involvement in the murders becomes increasingly apparent, yet humour is ever-present, not so much relieving tension, as revelling in it.

Director Tom Bailey emphasises the play’s duality in his programme notes. There is the naturalistic world of the interrogation, in which detectives Tupolski (Dominic Applewhite) and Ariel (Jonathan Purkiss) play good cop, bad cop with commendable realism in an oppressively anonymous box.

Here, the cast are given a (relatively) free reign over their performance. ‘We’ve thoroughly worked out the what, the where, and the who, but never the how’, writes Bailey. This borderline democratic approach to direction does allow the play an enjoyable vitality, from which much of the humour stems, but at times is evidently ill-advised: an awkwardly clustered arrangement of characters here, an unintentional shadow falling across someone’s face there.

And then there is the fantastically nightmarish realm of Katurian’s stories, in which sadism, torture and deliciously ironic coup de théâtres reign supreme; for these moments, the back wall of the interrogation room rises up to reveal a surreal world of strangely twisting trees and some horrendous conflation of child’s bedroom and torture chamber. Occasional blasts of pounding techno music sound ominously and all is heavily choreographed to enormous effect.

The production is gender-blind, allegedly allowing the inclusion of Oxford University’s fine female acting talent. Aside from the occasional maladroit pronouns, this is never an issue. Bowman’s tortured (both physically and mentally) protagonist is laudable in her range of emotions and Applewhite and Purkiss as the two detectives are an engaging double-act, suffusing equal amounts of tethered aggression and world-wearied resignation into their performances.

The show’s finest performance comes from D’Arcy however, whose writhing, fidgeting, drooling, shrieking portrayal of Michal is simultaneously endearing, amusing and incredibly annoying. It takes real skill to not present a mentally disabled character in a clichéd, arguably offensive way, and D’Arcy deserves enormous credit for her ability to steer clear of this trap without leaving Michal’s fundamental characteristics behind.

Although the production is consistently funny, there is an inescapable feeling that it is not quite as hilarious as it should be, presumably out through accident rather than design. Somewhat paradoxically, it is immensely difficult to imbue convincing naturalism into a performance, even more so when humour is also a primary concern. It requires every cast member to inhabit his role entirely, acting and reacting almost instinctively yet simultaneously providing the material’s inherent comedy with prepared platform from which to amuse. This is where Bailey’s production did not quite succeed. There were laughs, yes, but they were not as many or as loud as they should have been, given the quality of McDonagh’s script.

That said, the obsidian-black plot, the memorable design, and the dramatically convincing performances, particularly D’Arcy’s, all make for a compelling production. Rough-Hewn, the student theatre company behind the production, seek to create ‘provocative and invigorating theatre which is visceral, relevant and inescapable’. With The Pillowman, they have undoubtedly succeeded.

4/5

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