Martin McDonagh has created quite a niche for himself as a playwright. His specialty is violence and black humour. Neither element is in short supply in the theatre but McDonagh reaches such heights in quantity and quality of both that you walk out of the theatre after seeing his latest play, Hangmen, saying such brilliant words like “wow” or can “can you believe that?”
Let’s look at the opening scene of Hangmen. A young man named Hennessy (Josef Davies) is in a prison cell and the hangman Harry (David Morrissey) and his assistant Syd (Andy Nyman) arrive where two guards are waiting with the prisoner. Harry is there to hang Hennessy who, not surprisingly, protests his innocence.
Harry tells the “lad” quite matter of factly that things will go easier if he does not make a fuss. Hennessy replies that of course he will make a fuss. The audience roars.
Andy Nyman as Syd and David Morrissey as Harry. Photo Alastair Muir
As the guards try to subdue the victim, he complains about not getting the best one in the business but being assigned a rubbish hangman. Laughter again.
Harry tells him to relax and it will all be easier for him. It won’t be easier, retorts Hennessy, because he will be dead.
Harry whacks Hennessy across the head with his Billy club; a noose is put around his neck and the floorboards open letting him drop through. Job done, the hanging crew goes for breakfast.
McDonagh maintains this juxtaposition of utter cruelty and blackest humour throughout the play.
The play is set in 1963 when capital punishment was nearing its end in Great Britain. But for Harry there is a far more important issue than losing his calling: he will have to settle for second-best hangman. Arthur (Simon Rouse) executed far more people and there is no way Harry can catch up with him and join the pantheon as numero uno.
Physical violence is only one tool in McDonagh’s panoply. The other tool is language. He uses a language that is virulent, scatological, threatening, funny, outrageous as if it were a sharp switchblade in the hands of an expert and remorseless criminal.
The cast of Hangmen in the bar. Photo copyright Helen Maybanks
Except for the first scene in the prison, the play takes place in a pub owned by Harry and his wife Alice (Sally Rogers). The discussions and perhaps celebrations about the last hanging and the regret about its abolition are disturbed by the arrival of Mooney (Johnny Flynn) a “stranger” to the region who knows a great deal about the last execution. To make things worse, Harry’s young daughter Shirley (Bronwyn James) goes missing, Mooney is implicated in her disappearance and if you thought the first scene was enjoyable, you are in for another treat.
Hangmen, directed with great skill by Matthew Dunster, struck me not so much as a play about capital punishment, people of interesting, let’s say psychotic, moral fiber or appalling criminal injustice. All of those elements amount to very little compared to the impact of the performance. It may be something like a violent hurricane or a tsunami: a force hits you and you are left stunned.
The performances are pitch-perfect and the experience of seeing the play simply unforgettable.
A footnote: the play takes place in northern England and most of the characters are from there. They speak with an accent that is so thick and use words that even the Oxford English Dictionary may have missed, such that I found myself following the flow of what was said rather than having actual comprehension of some of the dialogue. Hennessy has the same problem with them. Just before he is bludgeoned and hanged, he complains that Harry can’t “talk normal” and yet he is hanging an innocent man.
If the play is ever produced in Canada, they may have to provide a glossary of unknown words if not simultaneous translation.
Hangmen by Martin McDonagh continues at the Wyndham’s Theatre, Charing Cross Road, London, England.