Halloween has come late this year to the National Theater, which has a treat for any season on hand in Martin McDonagh’s tricky, complex and ultimately overwhelming “The Pillowman.” Several years old, the play is only now receiving its world preem in a matchless production from John Crowley, here renewing a collaboration with American designer Scott Pask (“Tales From Hollywood”) that offers repeated visual coups. But however eye-popping the production, the real occasion lies in McDonagh writing for the first time not about the Ireland of his ancestry but about the vast and forbidding landscape of the mind, a place sufficiently haunted that “The Pillowman” really could disturb your sleep.
The names suggest an Eastern European locale at a time of totalitarian misrule: Katurian (David Tennant) — or, to give the character his full name, Katurian K. Katurian (“My parents were funny people,” he explains.) — and his older, mentally disabled brother, Michal (Adam Godley). The two are in adjacent cells, where they are being interrogated by Tupolski (Jim Broadbent), the so-called “good cop” with a grievous past, and his “bad cop” partner, Ariel (Nigel Lindsay), whose stolid aggression belies his airy, not to mention Shakespearean, moniker.
Katurian has written some 400 stories that share a theme whereby, we learn, “Some poor little kid gets fucked up.” Now he is being called to account, the price for his perverse imagination the risk of imminent execution.
Literary inspiration, of course, often begins at home, and it isn’t long before we discover the most damaged “poor little kid” in question may well have been Katurian himself — via, that is, the impaired if ineffably sweet-natured Michal. Latter’s childhood sorrows served as the grim, merciless catalyst for abattoir worker Katurian’s feverishly inventive, and fevered, brain.
Just as every person has a story within him, “The Pillowman” eventually pries at least one out of all four principals, including a shaggy-dog saga late in the second act that in and of itself would be enough to welcome Oscar winner Broadbent (“Iris”) back to the London stage for the first time in seven years, his deadpan timing and panache undimmed by the time away. (“I’m a detective,” he says in what passes for self-analysis in McDonagh’s invented police state. “I sometimes like to detect.”)
Still, “The Pillowman” is no mere vehicle for a beloved English character actor who, since he was last heard from onstage (in Sam Mendes’ “Habeas Corpus” revival at the Donmar), has achieved a wonderfully improbable fame. Ever droll though Broadbent and Lindsay, as Tupolski’s more menacing sidekick, are, both men take an affective back seat to the demented worlds proffered by Katurian, whose stories pour forth as a richly sinister amalgam of Poe, Edward Gorey and “Into the Woods” (which Crowley directed at the Donmar in 1998).
One of the creepier narratives rewrites the tale of the Pied Piper, while another involves an 8-year-old girl who thinks she is Jesus (she has a crown of thorns made out of barbed wire embedded in her head), with delusional and immensely disturbing results. The pillowman of the title is 9 feet tall and composed entirely of pink pillows (even his teeth), and driven by far from fluffy aims: His job, as he sees it, is to encourage children to kill themselves before they have time to mature into inevitably wretched, suicidal adults.
And lest these stories remain the sole preserve of Katurian’s restless mind, they are seen to elide in “The Pillowman” with a spate of actual child murders under investigation by the detectives, a scenario that in turn raises all sorts of anxious questions: Is the power of imaginative empathy sufficient that any story runs the risk of being acted out, so that fiction becomes fact? (Exactly the same question gets asked every day about the power of celluloid to beget violence.) And did Michal perhaps accede to a torturous childhood in order to give the younger brother he adores a story? If so, then artistic inspiration, the play suggests, is inextricably tied to grief and pain. Those are the tonal constants of McDonagh’s least forgiving, bravest play, where such japery as there is, and this author’s gift for black comedy has not deserted him, co-exists with the bleakly defining image of “a smiling mouth stinking into nothingness.”
This play, one suspects, must be far more difficult to pull off than it seems here, thanks to an unerring staging in which Hugh Vanstone’s spectral lighting joins with Paddy Cunneen’s Ligeti-like music to create an aural and visual poem that is scarily still during the long passages of recitation yet intensely dramatic throughout.
In the central role of the writer who isn’t entirely sure he has come by his craft the right way, Tennant (an Olivier nominee last year for “Lobby Hero”) ably parries the script’s deconstructionist impulses: “I don’t go in for that sort of -esque stuff anyway,” Katurian says, sounding much like McDonagh himself forestalling any of the more obvious comparisons (Orton? Pinter?) one might want to make. More crucially, Tennant never loses his foothold over a fearsome landscape in which there is talk of Katurian being presented with the severed toes of a dead Jewish boy, to cite just one instance of a young artist fed on a creatively nurturing diet of atrocities while his poor, beleaguered brother has been allowed to atrophy.
And though McDonagh preempts any attempt to read the play as autobiographical — McDonagh, the storyteller-as-playwright, himself has a brother — the play gains its emotional charge from the long and brilliantly played central scene between the two siblings, with Michal, in Godley’s extraordinary perf, keeping time to one of Katurian’s stories with his malformed foot. Bright-eyed and open-faced, Godley leaves you blinking away tears as he communicates Michal’s need for narrative sustenance, however gruesome the words. (“They’re not all that far-fetched,” he decides.) And though his writer-brother is on hand to offer the warning that “there are no happy endings,” Godley communicates the blissful pleasure in Michal’s realization that his pain, after all, served a literary purpose: He’s smiling as the audience shudders all the way home.