CWs: ableist slurs, anti-Semitism, racism, familicide, torture, execution, gore, gunshots, discussion of suicide, sexual violence, abuse, murder and violence towards children.
In a totalitarian state, story writer Katurian Katurian (Marianne James) is arrested and interrogated by detectives Tupolski (Gavin Fleming) and Ariel (Jake Rich) after a series of child murders closely resemble her macabre fairy tales. Throughout the play, Katurian recounts these tales and their horrific plots, but she is sure that, despite the similarities, she is innocent. What ensues is a dark and tragic, yet humourous, exploration of guilt, intent and legacy.
The Michael Pilch Studio was an effective choice for this production, at once enclosed and claustrophobic whilst also giving the actors the space and freedom to move around. The minimalist set design, comprised mainly of tables and chairs, with a wall of childlike drawings behind, effectively conveyed the tone of the piece and its stark and horrific content, whilst not taking away from the action. The actors would often walk up to the audience, creating an effective sense of discomfort.
The acting in this play was, simply put, phenomenal. There wasn’t a weak link in the cast and the surprising thing about the show was the actors’ ability to interact and weave in and out of each other’s dialogue effectively, something I have often found lacking in student theatre. A special mention must be given for James’ portrayal of Katurian. Whilst the other characters around her were arguably more unique, or quirky, James nevertheless captured my attention the most throughout the performance and quickly became, though not the strangest, the most engaging character on stage. Fleming and Rich had a great back-and-forth, but the relationship between Katurian and her brother Michal (Stepan Mysko von Schultze) was the highlight of the play. James and von Schultze had such a believable relationship and they truly threw themselves into the roles; I really believed that these people had a familial connection through their excellent acting. Von Schultze also had the added challenge of representing a mentally disabled character, one that requires tact and courage to perform, but his performance was nuanced and excellent. Eugenie Nevin’s Maria, a smaller role that some may overlook, was also a fun and light-hearted portrayal amidst an incredibly dark play.
Speaking of which, it is rare that a play carrying so many content warnings should be described as hilarious, but there is no other word for it. From the ridiculous banter of the two detectives to Katurian’s disbelief at her situation, the script takes something that should be wholly upsetting and mines it for humour, making the play so much more watchable than it could have been. Furthermore, it is the actors who work hard to bring this realisation to life, and without their strong performances the humour could seem jarring; here, it does not.
The use of lighting, sound and props was also unique. A surprising addition to the sound, which I will not spoil, took the play on an unusual but exciting tangent, and the use of lighting was highly effective whilst not removing focus on the acting. But the real star here was the use of models, masks and puppets, mainly whilst recounting the story of the titular Pillowman. It was a well-executed and imaginative way of portraying the stories which added an extra, unique element to the performance, and I commend the prop and costume designers for their work here.
This play is certainly not for everyone; the adult content and dark themes certainly warrant the warning that comes with them. But for any fans of the macabre, mysterious, disturbing and darkly comedic, this production is, in a word, outstanding. From the acting to the design to directing, every element brought something fresh and new to the table. This could easily be likened to a professional production and is quite frankly some of the best student theatre Oxford has to offer.