3 stars out of 5
“Gut-twistingly arresting and morbidly funny”
BY SAM MARLOWE DUKE OF YORK’S THEATRE, LONDON
Starry cast delivers gallows laughs in Martin McDonagh’s violent, grotesque fairytale drama about the power of stories
The murders of children are scattered like a macabre trail of blood-soaked breadcrumbs through Martin McDonagh’s 2003 savage shocker. In a nameless totalitarian state, atrocities link grisly fairytales that may or may not be fiction – the collected works of a writer whose own history is contorted by unutterable suffering, and who is facing torture and execution at the hands of thuggish police.
Narratives are secreted inside narratives, just as razor blades are lethally concealed within tempting apples in one gruesome interlude. Ideas about freedom of expression, and the power of stories to provoke and connect, hunch, crow-like, at the drama’s edges – only to flap away, cawing mockingly, whenever we try to make out their exact shape. That is because, alongside a passion for writing and a profound belief in its importance, McDonagh’s play impishly insists on the slipperiness of creative vision, and the reductive fruitlessness of hunting for precise meaning in art. It is gut-twistingly arresting and morbidly funny – McDonagh’s hallmark queasy combination – but it also feels naggingly glib. That is exacerbated by Matthew Dunster’s production, which, while starrily cast and well timed as a salvo in the culture wars (it arrives, pointedly, without trigger warnings), fatally lacks the weight and intensity necessary to make the material’s nightmarish excesses feel properly earned.
Lily Allen is Katurian, author of the grim tales in question, arrested after a spate of copycat crimes seemingly drawn from her pages. She’s tormented by Steve Pemberton’s silkily snarky Tupolski and Paul Kaye’s stringy-haired, freebooting Ariel, a pair of Pinteresque goons knowingly embodying the good cop/bad cop trope. While Katurian cowers in a claustrophobic, stained, strip-lit office, her brother Michal (Matthew Tennyson), also under suspicion and brain-damaged from years of parental abuse, intermittently screams in apparent agony from next door. The ‘truth’ about the slayings, and about Katurian’s source of inspiration, is elusive, as Anna Fleischle’s set, enhanced by Dick Straker’s video, melts into childhood bedrooms or shadow-stalked forests. And Michal’s favourite character, the Pillowman – a giant, squishy, smiling creature who visits children destined for terrible lives and persuades them to pre-empt their own misery by killing themselves – is at once terrifying, weirdly comforting and desperately sad.
For all the Grand Guignol imagery, though, the production and performances are flyweight. There’s a pallid blankness about Allen that may be intentional, but makes her difficult to engage with; Pemberton and Kaye are predictably dab hands at the sinister comedy, but neither musters real menace. McDonagh glances at, rather than interrogates, the myth of the tortured artist, as well as the notion of creative immortality, yet in mischievously refusing to commit to a point of view, he repeatedly undercuts his own arguments, with the result that the play feels flimsy and nebulous. The gallows laughs may be diverting, the violence ingenious and the body count high – but in the end, it doesn’t add up to enough.