Last night, the likes of Cheryl and Andor star Diego Luna joined the press in the audience of The Pillowman’s West End revival, at The Duke of York’s Theatre.
The 2003 jet-black comedy penned by The Banshees of Inisherin director Martin McDonagh, who was also in attendance, was not short of controversy 20 years ago and before opening night those involved fully expected it to shock once again.
The play is set in a totalitarian state, where a writer of short stories about violence towards children is interrogated by the police in the wake of murders they believe to be inspired by her work.
Lily Allen, following up starring in 2:22: A Ghost Story, returns to the stage as this scribe called Katurian, gendered swapped for the first time which she believes adds “an extra layer of horror, because we’re not used to seeing women being beaten up.”
In an age of cancel culture, putting on The Pillowman was certainly a bold move with scenes of a child being tied to a bed and drilled in the kneecap, not to mention a little girl being crucified and buried alive by her parents for thinking she’s Jesus. Such moments are only implied by gestures rather than gruesomely acted out, leaving the rest to the audience’s imagination, but nevertheless have a profound and disturbing effect.
Such controversial themes understandably were too much for some in the audience to handle and at least six in the stalls left during the first act.
Speaking with The Telegraph prior to The Pillowman’s press night, Allen admitted: “I’m fully anticipating people walking out and being horrified, and I think that’s good. It would be nice if a few people fainted.”
A complex and impressive production, with a stand-out performance from Inside No 9’s Steve Pemberton as Tupolski, McDonagh’s dark yarn left us contemplating difficult questions around perpetration, responsibility, censorship, truth and art – but it’s certainly not for the faint-hearted.
Interestingly, in real-life the playwright himself strongly believes in fighting what he thinks could end up being a war on creativity, already denying requests to edit aspects of his gallows humour-filled work.
McDonagh told the outlet: “I’ve had theatres asking me to change words [in scripts] and then not put the play on when I refused. I always thought a lot of small towns in Ireland were racist places, so not to have that language in some of the plays would have been lying.
“One theatre didn’t get that it’s a comment on Ireland, as opposed to me being a racist writer. When you’ve got a thousand theatres like that, then you’re in trouble. If there’s a war on creativity, I’ll be leading the resistance – but I’m hopeful that cancel culture is a passing fad. At the time of the Hollywood blacklists, it seemed it was always going to be like that. But it’s gone.”
The Pillowman is on at Duke of York’s Theatre until September 2 and tickets can be booked here.