The Pillowman brings a Martin McDonagh theatrical shock to the Lyric Theatre stage

Director Emma Jordan talks to Gail Bell about the collision of comedy and cruelty in Martin McDonagh’s acclaimed The Pillowman, which opens at the Lyric Theatre this week

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Emma Jordan during rehearsals for Martin McDonagh's The Pillowman, which opens at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast on May 16 (Gorgeous Photography/Gorgeous Photography)

She has waited in the wings for 15 years to work on Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman and now, sitting comfortably in the director’s chair, Emma Jordan is ready to present a unique interpretation of the grisly fable exploring the darker side of humanity, along with the role of storytelling itself.

“Directing The Pillowman is a bit like becoming detective,” observes the award-winning Belfast director during a break in rehearsals for a highly anticipated new co-production of McDonagh’s 2003 play dealing with murder, torture, interrogation and fairytales as grim as they come.

“In lots of ways, directing is like being a detective….” she says. “You ask questions, look for clues, make decisions – certainly with The Pillowman, you are directing an interrogation, but you are also forensically taking the play apart before putting it back together again – hopefully, in a way that is creatively unique and, above all, does justice to the writing.”

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Emma Jordan describes the art of directing as being like a detective: "You ask questions, look for clues, make decisions..." (Gorgeous Photography/Gorgeous Photography)

A long-time fan of McDonagh’s work – she directed last year’s critically acclaimed The Beauty Queen of Leenane (winner of Best Play Revival at the UK Theatre Awards 2023) - Jordan feels the burden of getting it right: a sentiment not diluted by the rumour McDonagh has expressed interest in flying into Belfast for opening night.

“So, no pressure, at all...” she adds, with jovial understatement. “At every opening night I get nervous; it is always a big moment, waiting for the audience’s reaction, waiting to see how a production is received. You can never second-guess how an audience is going to react and it is always that nail-biting thing – have you done justice to the work?”

For anyone familiar with McDonagh’s writing – The Leenane trilogy, the Lieutenant of Innishmore to name a few - it will hardly be a shocking revelation to discover The Pillowman features the usual juxtaposition of good and evil alongside unlikeable protagonists, cruelty and pain and large helpings of absurdist black humour – the “really black” type, like the priests’ singularly dark socks in Father Ted.

“I’m a big fan of McDonagh’s work,” enthuses Jordan, the artistic director of Prime Cut Productions. “It suits my sense of humour very well - the sense of humour is so dark. There is definitely more of that on show in The Pillowman - I think it is probably one of his darkest plays, but it is also very playful because of the fairytales within it and the storytelling device used throughout. He is really pushing at the boundaries in terms of where humour sits and where you are genuinely kind of terrified.”

Once, in an interview with the Guardian newspaper, McDonagh – the writer behind successful films In Bruges, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri and The Banshees of Inisherin – said he liked the “art of theatrical shock” and he liked to walk the line between comedy and cruelty because “one illuminates the other”.

The playwright’s dark comedy The Pillowman is set to return to the West End in June.
Martin McDonagh's trademark dark humour is centre-stage in The Pillowman, one of the award-winning playwright, director and film-maker's most thought-provoking works

Certainly, there is much to ponder in the cruel, mordantly humorous The Pillowman which explores various themes, among them artistic freedom, ego, moral and personal responsibility, actions and consequences and the importance and legacy of fiction.

We are left to ponder if art is always for art’s sake and if life imitates art, or vice versa... Is there a blurring of the lines between reality and fiction and are the stories writers leave behind more important than life itself?

Without giving too much away, the story is based around a writer, Katurian, who lives in a totalitarian state (which could be anywhere) and who is being interrogated by the authorities after child murders are carried out in the same way he has described them in his book. The past comes into play – his vicarious suffering from his brother’s pain and his profiting artistically from that pain – which has consequences for everyone.

The Pillowman is probably one of Martin McDonagh’s darkest plays, but it is also very playful because of the fairytales within it and the storytelling device used throughout. He is really pushing at the boundaries in terms of where humour sits and where you are genuinely terrified

—  Emma Jordan

“I think the challenge for me, as director, is portraying the different worlds within the play,” muses Jordan. “It is about blending those worlds and taking the audience along with you – a bit like with the Beauty Queen of Leenane, where the audience is taken on a real rollercoaster ride. Similarly, in The Pillowman, we leave one world and in an instant are transported to a forest…

“It is important to remember our craft is about storytelling and Martin McDonagh gives a palette to bring the audience on a real adventure and experience something uniquely theatrical – as well as deeply thought-provoking.”

Immersed in the world of literature since studying English at Queen’s – “to appease my late father who wanted me to go to university” – Jordan has gone on establish herself as one of the region’s leading directors.

“Doing an English degree meant that was the box ticked for my father; he was a lorry driver, but he loved literature and instilled a love of literature in me,” she says.

“I was the first child from our family to go to university, so that was important for him, but we did a deal – I went to university and then I could go and do whatever I wanted after that - which was acting.”

She was “very lucky” in that, soon after graduation, she landed a main role in a BBC film and then had “a good 10 years and a lot of fun” before some soul-searching took hold and her career meandered down the directing/producing path.

“It took a long time for me to be brave enough, but when I started directing, I thought, ‘OK, this is me; I’m home,” she says. “I would be absolutely terrified of going back on stage now.”

It hasn’t been easy since the death of her film-maker and media consultant husband, Matt Curry, in 2019 after a short battle with cancer, and she admits it has been “challenging”, adjusting to a new family unit with daughters, Rose, Annie and Matilda.

“We are still adjusting,” she says, quietly. “Matt was such a wonderful father and husband; it was such a shock... but the theatre community here is such a supportive one and our friends and family continue to help us through this journey.

“My girls have seen the good sides and bad sides to my job because I have worked away a lot, and they also understand that when I go into the vortex – which is what rehearsals are kind of like – I’m not 100 per cent accessible.

“It is totally consuming - creating magical, theatrical ‘other’ worlds full of those ‘gasp’ moments when people ask, ‘How did that just happen?’ I think it’s fair to say, there are a few of those in The Pillowman.”

The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh is co-produced by Prime Cut and the Lyric Theatre and runs at the Lyric from May 15 to June 16. lyrictheatre.co.uk