He is Katurian K. Katurian, the imprisoned and tortured protagonist of Martin McDonagh's morbidly comic nightmare of a drama, The Pillowman, which opened April 10 to exultant reviews. Suspected of wrongdoing because the plots of his many grisly and unpublished stories resemble a series of recent child murders, he is interrogated by a sinister, yet ludicrous good cop-bad cop team employed by a nameless totalitarian society. Also arrested is Katurian's simple-minded brother Michael, with whom the writer shared a singularly disturbing childhood, one which forever shaped both siblings' lives. The wickedly twisting story, which draws guffaws and gasps from audiences—often within the same moment—has been compared to everything from a Grimm fairy tale to a Kafkaesque fable, with bits of Nabakov, Steinbeck and Pinter thrown in for good measure. As to its meaning, it depends on who you talk to. Some critics say it's about the lasting power of art in the face of passing regimes; others think it illustrates the monstrous and ruthless egotism of artists; while still others think it's mainly a matter of McDonagh indulging in rampant and bewitching storytelling for its own sake. A least a half a dozen other theories are floating around, touching on issues of repressive governments, modern society, and the nature of childhood. But don't ask Crudup his opinion on the matter; he can only tell you about Katurian's perspective.
[SPOILER ALERT! Readers who have not seen The Pillowman and do not wish to have certain plot points spoiled for them, may not want to read beyond this point.]
Playbill.com: Your role in The Pillowman is so unlike any you have had before, and so unlike anyone any of us would meet in normal life. I'm curious how you prepared to play such a man.
Billy Crudup: The exceptional thing about Martin' play is he's created a fully realized character in three dimensions and a world that exists and has its own rules. It's complete. For my part, it was an exercise of understanding the text and working through it and allowing that to create the circumstances for me. It's wasn't so much about me imposing behavior that I thought was interesting for somebody that might have had their parents torture them for seven years. I took Martin's writing at face value and allowed that to be my template for charting my course through it.
Playbill.com: People have talked about the various influences on the play: Grimm fairy tales, Roald Dahl, Kafka. Did you read any of these texts to prepare?
BC: All of that stuff was floating around the ether of the rehearsal room, but—I have to be honest, Robert, I had a ton of lines to memorize! I spend most of my time trying to understand my part.
Playbill.com: Many actors talk about the importance of liking your character, whoever he or she may be. Katurian makes some questionable decisions in the play. Do you find him likable?
BC: I do. I really do. I think his relationship with his brother reveals the extent to which he's willing to love and be loved and try to get the most out of relationships in life that you can. Those are admirable qualities to me. And he's someone who cares deeply about his art and its power on human consciousness. That's a positive quality from my perspective. I don't want you to reveal the plot here, but I think that the reasons he ends up doing what he does to [his brother] Michael are in no small part about his awareness that Michael is doomed and this is the easiest way for him to be rescued. Playbill.com: But is Katurian also thinking at the same time, when he does what he does to Michael, that this could help in making a deal with the authorities to save his stories from destruction?
BC: I don't think it hurts. But moreover, I think what happens to Michael inspires some of his consideration of the stories. I don't think the [concern over] the stories came first.
Playbill.com: But do you agree that there is nothing Katurian cares more about in life than his writing?
BC: No. I think the only thing he really cares about is the suffering that Michael went through [as a child], and he thinks his writing is an exposition of that suffering. And Michael is going to die. The only question of there being a legacy of his pain is if the stories survive.
Playbill.com: So, the saving of the stories has as much to do with Michael as it has to do with Katurian.
BC: From my perspective, I think it only has to do with Michael. That's the way I play it each night. But, like any good writer, Martin has left it unsolved. There're little clues throughout, but even when I say, 'I was a good writer,' at the end, what I'm thinking is I told the story of this suffering in a vivid and artful way and that's what makes a good writer: one who uses their imagination to touch on real human feelings.
Playbill.com: You do a lot of storytelling in the play, often speaking directly to the audience. Did you approach that part of the play in a different way?
BC: Yeah, because the question is: Who is that person? One of the first focal points on my rehearsal process is figuring out who the person is, where they are in their environment. How do you begin to build the life of a character who exists in an unreal world? What we decided was this was a manifestation of Katurian's ideal, how he would want his stories told. From that point of view, it's a limited realization of a human being. It's kind of the storyteller incarnate from Katurian's point of view.
Playbill.com: An interesting part of the critical reception was that different critics have very different ideas as to what the play was ultimately about.
BC: I think that's a wonderful thing.
Playbill.com: You've lived with the play longer than any critic. What do you think it's about?
BC: I still don't frickin' know! I'm always reluctant to add my point of view to the dialogue, because that tends to carry more weight than it should, and I wouldn't want to influence anyone's beliefs in the play in any way other than the way that we play it. Also, I don't look it objectively. I don't even know what the play is like to watch. I've never seen the stories enacted behind me.
Playbill.com: Has the play ever given you any nightmares?
BC. No. When I first read it, the idea of children being mutilated made me nauseous. I think I quickly adjusted my focus. That is to say, I took a backrow perspective, in order to be able to cope with such horrific ideas.