18th December, 2015
After positive reviews at the Royal Court this September, Martin McDonagh’s new play Hangmen, about Britain’s second most famous hangman, has transferred to the West End. It is a beguiling, hilarious comedy questioning audience’s attitudes to violence. There are some spoilers in this review.
In the first scene, we see hangman Harry, two years prior to the abolishment of capital punishment, in a cell about to hang convicted murderer Hennessy. Although Hennessy swears he never knew the victim and has never even been to Norfolk, Harry is duty bound to carry out the court’s sentence. It is in this short opening scene where Harry’s motivations and attitude to hanging are laid out. Despite him and the guards believing that Hennessy is a good lad, he carries out the hanging, assuming that Hennessy’s pleas of innocence are because he is scared. He even distances what he does and what the courts do, portraying himself as their servant, insisting that he carries out the death sentences in the most humane and dignified way possible.
We see Anna Fleischle’s prison cell set as we enter the auditorium. It’s a windowless, high-walled cell, filling the stage and, despite its sparsity, it is very detailed. The eeriness of the small room is complete with flashing strip lights, a bed bolted to the floor, and a small corner shelf with a bible on, the whole thing evoking a sense of morbidity. Despite the illogical nature of the notion of ‘an eye for an eye’ playing on our mind and the idea that Hennessy could be innocent being conveyed in this scene, it is extremely funny. The laughter continues even when the rope is put around Hennessy’s neck but it is completely silenced when the floor opens up and the rope goes taut. Theatrically, there is a strange finality that kind of made me uncomfortable, that this character whose side we were on was ended. The scene ends in an utter coup of a scene change as the entire cell lifts up into the fly tower, evoking the lifting of capital punishment.
We are now two years later in 1965, hanging is generally deemed as unpopular with the nation and has been abolished. We are in Harry’s pub in Oldham ran by him, his wife and his ‘mopey’ daughter. They serve pints (nothing more glamorous) to the locals who are only there to hang on to Harry’s fame as the last hangman in Britain, even if they don’t think much of the drink. A journalist arrives after a quote about the ending of hanging. One of the locals argues that hanging is too good for some people. Harry, on the other hand, insists he will professionally keep his thoughts out of the matter while remaining strangely (and eventually, vocally) proud of his part in his duty. And then newcomer Mooney, portrayed by Johnny Flynn, arrives. Flynn has played outsiders at the Royal Court before, as the supposedly Australia-bound Lee in Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem (2009) and as the environmentally-minded Ben in Richard Bean’s The Heretic (2011). Mooney is an enigmatic character. He not only has physical similarities to Hennessy but, when he starts befriending Harry’s daughter, things point to him being the actual murderer. In reality, Mooney and Harry’s incompetent and phallically-minded sidekick (Andy Nyman) have planned to put Harry down a peg or two. Without spoiling too much about where the play goes (and the plot takes many riveting turns), Mooney and his motivations remain ambiguous, thus making him one of the most intriguing characters in the play.
One of the thrilling things about McDonagh’s play is its language. Much of it is reminiscent of Pinter, but McDonagh also subverts this. Mooney, for example, is self-knowingly menacing, arguing that menacing is cool, creepy isn’t. Furthermore, the rhythms and wit of the northern dialect is highly entertaining, but McDonagh is also not afraid of one-liners and more crude humour. Indeed, much has been said about the 1960s’ politically incorrect language in Hangmen. In an interesting programme article, Patrick Lonergan points out that ‘[w]e may be disgusted or enraged by some of the things that Harry says and does’, and we can determine our own opinion of what’s happening on stage. So in Hangmen, then, it seems that we laugh along with characters’ jokes as well as condemn them, just as we may have a push-pull attitude to characters’ morals and attitudes. Indeed, this is a play that the audience can engage with intellectually and enjoyably, and Friday’s night’s audience certainly was engaging with it more than I’ve heard an audience engage with a play for quite a while.
Much of the production’s success, though, is due to the cast that director Matthew Dunster has assembled. David Morrissey’s Harry finds the right balance between a northern modesty and proud local celebrity, and grumpy barman and concerned parent, trying to take pride in his former duty and yet bitterly jealous of the more ‘successful’ (!) Albert Pierrepoint. Simon Rouse, as the elderly Arthur often saying the wrong thing, ensures that the character isn’t just portrayed as some old doddery but as highly believable. Andy Nyman (I remember buying one of his magic tricks when I was younger!) is first class as the pale, incompetent Syd who doesn’t want to be in Harry’s shadow any more. Sally Rodgers and Bronwyn James also stand out in a fine ensemble cast.
I fully recommend McDonagh’s Hangmen; it has so much going on. Go and see it for its ideas, its language, its humour, its plot, its set and its cast.
Hangmen plays at the Wyndham’s Theatre until 5th March, 2016.