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An Electrifying Revival – The Pillowman (Theatre Review)

4 min read

The Pillowman by MARTIN McDONAGH, , Writer - Martin McDONAGH, Director - MATTHEW DUNSTER, PRODUCTION DESIGNER - Anna Fleischle, Lighting - Neil Austin, Video - Dick Straker, Movement - Chi-San Howard, DUKE OF YORK’S THEATRE, 2023, Credit: Johan Persson/

When The Pillowman world premiered in 2003, driven by a dual life-force of child torture and freedom of speech running through its acerbic veins, it took the Iraq War and shrank it down to a microcosm. Its horrifically wicked humour and sensibility would reflect the attitudes and behaviours of thousands of U.S. soldiers in prison camps like Abu Ghraib, each with their own Tupolski and Ariel. It is a play that seemed to perfectly capture the cultural moment it emerged from – and somehow, in 2023, The Pillowman feels even more soberingly relevant than perhaps back then.

Matthew Dunster's electrifying revival re-uses all of the tools that made The Pillowman's original outing razor-sharp, with an exception of one significant change: a gender-swapped Katurian in the form of none other than the magnetic rising star of . Dunster was also responsible for her stage debut in 2:22 A Ghost Story, a collaboration which netted Allen an Olivier Best Actress nomination – what she brings to a gender-bent Katurian leaves no doubt as to the deservedness of such an accolade so early in one's career.

Credit: Johan Persson

Katurian is one of McDonagh's trickier characters to embody – they are a complicatedly contradictory individual, dually terrified but for markedly different reasons: their initial confused fear and anxiety over their new situation, and then, the abject terror of their life's work becoming a whisper on the air. Allen's performance feels hauntingly real through the vivid vulnerability she brings to the tortured scribe, trembling and quaking as she attempts to put the pieces of her own story together.

There's an essence of dramaturgical gladiatorial combat, as though you are truly watching someone wrestling for their life not to be snuffed out on stage – there's such a layered nuance to Allen's portrayal that many may miss the subtle gestures, the repetitive twisting of fingers or the gradual contortion of her body as to make herself feel so small in this cell she may simply disappear.

Allen's beautifully arresting Katurian is perfectly countered by the blistering malicious duo of & Paul Kaye, a Laurel and Hardy by way of Mussolini and Mao. The pair are magnetic on stage, colliding with one another with such violent charisma that it should be a fire hazard the sparks that arise. But it's Allen's naked humanity that brings both Tupolski and Ariel back from the edge of cliché, where often many have found themselves falling into such intense characters.

Dunster's reimagining of The Pillowman's two worlds – one brutally real and hollowly bureaucratic, the one a dream-like echo of Katurian's fairy-tale worlds – reflects the duality of both Michal-and-Katurian alongside Tupolski-and-Ariel. Production designer Anna Fleischle and lightning designer Neil Austin create a visual dyad, in which one world is transient, fleetingly idyllic with a sense of wonder, only to be continually demolished by the re-arrival of the police station's cold, unwelcoming rooms -a reminder of the authoritarian state within which they all preside.

Credit: Johan Persson

This electrifying revival comes at a time where it feels almost prescient again – at a time where bills like the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act of 2022 are enacted, effectively criminalizing protests, and when our police are arresting individuals on suspicion of the potential to offend, The Pillowman's authoritarian state feels alarmingly closer than it did a decade ago. Paul Kaye's paralyzing monologue on his insistence that despite not always being right, he's always on the right side echoes the real-world excuses and side-stepping of many in the Metropolitan Police force familiar with individual officers connected to recent incidents of the past few years. In 2003, many of Ariel's particular moments of reasoning for his malevolent behavior would've been a warning – now, they feel like a mirror's reflection.

Part of what makes The Pillowman feel timeless is that ultimately, it is about the ties that bind us – and those that we are bound by. Despite Allen's emotionally resonant thrashing against the oncoming of the inevitable, this determination to calcify herself as a writer if nothing else feels both admirable and misguided – and yet, there's a fire within us that burns brightly for her anyway. For Ariel, there's a drive for absolute justice for others, a victory he can never claim for himself but will endlessly pursue until death finally catches up with him. The true malevolence however lies in Pemberton's sinisterly disarming Tupolski, a man who appears bound by nothing, and yet promises everything – a shadowy shapeshifter who appears to only reflect an emulation of humanity – disturbing reminiscent of a certain political party.

For a decade, The Pillowman has lay dormant, and perhaps its resurgence is a warning sign to the importance of witnessing these kinds of malevolent characters, to smell the theatrical smelling salts and realize that these characters feel perhaps a shade too real today. Dunster isolates its most potent magic, its hypnotizingly wicked darkness and shines it like a beacon across London, inviting many to witness some of McDonagh's greatest writing in an electrifying revival whose sobering relevance ambushes you. For many singers-turned-actors, there's often a criticism that perhaps they should've stuck to what they know best – for Lily Allen however, it's a damn shame she didn't get on stage sooner.

The Pillowman runs from Saturday 10th June to Saturday 2nd September – tickets available here.