The Pillowman is a revival of Martin McDonagh’s play, first seen at the NT in 2003. It’s at the Duke of York’s Theatre from June 10. It’s set in a future semi-totalitarian state and focuses on a writer, Katurian, who is being investigated by the police for his unpublished gruesome fairy tales—in which children are maimed and murdered—that have spawned a series of real-life copycat killings.
More Grimm, actually. But also furiously and stomach-churningly funny. And it asks some serious questions about bad parenting (by biological parents and the state), the relationship between art and life, the responsibilities of the writer, and whether art can cause damage. Katurian argues that "the only duty of the storyteller is to tell the story." The police say that "we like executing writers; it sends a good signal." Oh, and it offers a brilliant twist on the Pied Piper story.
What haven’t you seen? He’s had a string of hits, from The Beauty Queen of Leenane to The Lieutenant of Inishmore and Hangmen. He’s also a big shot in films. If you haven’t seen the brilliant 2008 movie In Bruges, you should, and his most recent is the Oscar-nominated The Banshees of Inisherin, starring Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson.
The original revival was due to star Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Steve Pemberton, but it was delayed by the pandemic more than once. Pemberton remains, but the role of the writer Katurian—originated by David Tennant—will now be played by Lily Allen, who was Olivier nominated for her stage debut in Danny Robbins’ runaway hit, 2:22 A Ghost Story, a show that looks as if it might have more staying power than The Mousetrap.
Steve Pemberton and Lily Allen in The Pillowman. Photo by Rankin.
It is, but the connection is director Matthew Dunster, who steered Allen through 2:22 and is currently a West End hit-maker par excellence; he is also at the helm of Shirley Valentine with Sheridan Smith. His stock is high, and he clearly thinks Allen is up to the role, and it will be interesting to see what happens when it is played by a woman. Besides, Dunster has a tight relationship with McDonagh; the pair became friends when they worked together on Hangmen at the Royal Court in 2015, which went on to the West End and Broadway.
"I love any play that is unashamedly about art, and The Pillowman is certainly that. The context in which it takes place is so brutal, and it shows how hard it is for artists to live and what we will lose if they are silenced. Martin first wrote it when he was 18, long before The Beauty Queen of Leenane and the Irish plays with which he made his name. It was rejected by everyone. I love it. It’s like a first album. All these years later, you can still hear the kid in it—the sense of a writer who knows he will never be that bold again. God, Martin can plot. It’s so intricate; there are so many pay-offs."
The title refers to a mythical figure made out of cushions who comes with button eyes and a smiley mouth and persuades small children to kill themselves rather than grow up and face adult misery.
The Brothers Grimm meet Hammer Horror and Franz Kafka.
I do like a story that ends with everyone living happily ever after.