From its opening scene, Hangmen probes the motivations and morality of the public executioner. What inspires and individual – and, by extension, a nation – to take the life of another person in the name of justice? Is this act grounded in a dutiful sense of upholding the law – whatever the cost? Is it a form of revenge? Or does it arise because the differences between the murderer and the hangmen are far less straightforward than we might think? Such questions haunt this play, shifting us from thinking about our own motivations and responsibilities…Hangmen, too, seeks to chart the gap between stories (like Harry’s boastful newspaper interviews) and the reality of what it means to string someone up until he has suffocated to death. And in that gap we as audience-members may be able to discern our own reflection. We may be disgusted or enraged by some of the things that Harry says and does. And we may condemn other countries today for executing their citizens for actions that we might not even consider to be crimes. But, as McDonagh shows, state violence is only made possible by the tolerance of an entire population. What, then, might Hangmen be telling us about ourselves?
This is Patrick Lonergan, Professor of Drama at the University of Ireland, Galway, writing in the programme for Martin McDonagh’s new play, Hangmen, which is now playing at the Wyndham’s Theatre following a sold-out season at the Royal Court. This is McDonagh’s first premiere in the West End since the RSC’s triumphant version ofThe Lieutenant Of Inishmore played at the Garrick Theatre in 2002 following successful seasons at Stratford upon Avon and the Barbican. By any measure, this is the best play The Royal Court has staged since Vicky Featherstone took the reins and one of the five best plays it has staged in the last ten years.
During his absence from the London stage, McDonagh has penned film scripts and his one play set in America: A Behanding in Spokane. Like The Leenane Trilogy and the Aran Islands Trilogy, that play was an obsidian black comedy/satire/drama with equal parts obscenity, violence, improbable set-up and extreme characters. The violence was extreme; so extreme that, mixed with the colourful characters and fruity language, laughter, albeit of the shocked and awed kind was always close at hand. But after the theatre was dark, and one was safely home, there were themes to ponder on.
Hangmen is quite a departure from that style. It may be the best play McDonagh has ever written. It is certainly the best play I have ever seen that deals with the question of capital punishment. This lucid, compelling Who-and-Whydunnit, populated with strong, vibrant and utterly flawed characters, is the most potent indictment of capital punishment one could imagine. At a time when young men are being flung from rooftops because they are “suspected” of being gay, when women are being stoned to death because they have been raped, when refugees are being condemned to watery graves by draconian government policy, this play could not be more timely. Murder sanctioned by society inaction is still prevalent.
Hangmen directly raises the question: what would you do if someone murdered your child? And then it raises another, a better, harder question: would you stand by and let a suspected murderer be killed, where to intervene might result in your own death or, at least, an upheaval in your usual routine?
The premise is simple. Harry was an official (and officious) Hangman until the UK abolished the death penalty in 1965. Angered by his inability to exceed the number of hangings carried out by his former superior, Albert Pierrepoint, and his simple inability to kill as capriciously as he once did, Harry seethes and stews, playing Master of the House in a pub he runs with his wife, Alice. It’s a typical local pub – dark, brooding, yellow light, all male customers who form a loyal coterie. Among them is Syd who was Harry’s assistant until Harry reported him (now there’s a distatseful tale) and ended his civil service career. Despite that, Syd remains a fixture; a barnacle on a creaking ship.
Harry is constantly bragging about his skills and prowess as a judicial murderer. He gives an interview to the local paper which is read by more than just his inner circle. A stranger appears, Mooney, a youngish, quirky and disrespectful youth from the hated “South”. He seems to epitomise everything one imagines characterised the cool, zany Sixties. He causes a ruckus but makes a secret assignation with Harry’s daughter, Shirley.
When Harry and Alice realise that they don’t know where Shirley has gone, panic sets in. Syd fuels this panic by telling Harry some untruths about Mooney to bignote himself. Rage sets in and takes firm but furious control of Harry’s mood. As time ticks by, he believes that Mooney has murdered his daughter, although he cannot fathom why.
Syd meets up with Mooney who tells him that he has Shirley tied up in a garage by the sea, a noose around her neck and perched precariously on a family size packet of breakfast cereal. Syd, Mooney and Pierrepoint, who has been outraged by the contents of the newspaper, all arrive at Harry’s pub about the same time. What Harry does and how the play resolves needs to be seen – but anyone expecting a happy ending is in for a bitter disappointment.
Being set in the swinging Sixties (see what McDonagh did there?) there are many tasteless jokes about women, homosexuals, racism and Scotland – amongst other topics. For my part, these were seldom funny; the audience around me found them borderline hysterical. But they were important in deeply etching the sense of the particular time and place into the consciousness. They also juxstapose “right-thinking” of today with “right-thinking” then and raise the question: what will they think of how we behaved in 50 years time?
The character of Mooney brings a vibrant colour and feckless abandonment to the dimly lit public house and what fun there is to be had here largely revolves around Mooney, or the marvellously, violently, indignation frigate that is Pierrepoint. Mooney’s eclectic references were quite diverting – Kierkegaard in particular – and the scene between Mooney and Syd in a greasy café was fun. Vaguely menacing, as Mooney likes to think of himself, but fun.
But the central themes and the storylines, and Harry himself, these are not comic matters. They are deadly serious. The opening scene, where a convicted killer, Hennessy, is dragged kicking and screaming (literally) to the gallows and dispatched with glee and disdain by Harry (Syd is meant to help but, as with so much else, fails to grasp what is important), all the while desperately proclaiming his innocence, is brutal and chilling. Its reverberations are felt in every subsequent scene.
Every character, except perhaps Hennessy and Pierrepoint, although we will never know for sure about them, lies at some critical point in the narrative. Terrible misdeeds, betrayals and crime are covered up by a group of persons whose souls were melded together in their service of Her Majesty or the aftermath of that service. They worked together to kill others lawfully; now they kill time by drinking in Harry’s pub. Death is not an issue for them – they have seen too much of it, are all but inured to its effect. Truth and justice seem to have left no mark on any of them; what remains is an entitlement to dispense justice, to behave amorally and wrongly as if by right. The mob rules in this pub, at least as long as it follows Harry’s lead.
As the action plays out, a sense of horror overtakes one: surely if I were in this situation I would make a different choice? Stand up for justice? But the laughter of the audience suggests that not many of them are thinking about the issues McDonagh is writing about; rather they are enjoying the surface decorations of this well-made theatrical cake.
Matthew Dunster directs with assuredness and elicits some quite superb performances from his cast. Simon Rouse never puts a foot wrong as the ageing, near-deaf Arthur and most of the genuine laughs of the evening turn on his performance. His Arthur is a man too old to fight for justice, too scared to make a fuss. Rouse’s Arthur is real and poignant.
David Morrissey gives a towering, brutish and slightly frenetic turn as Harry. Like an older, dyspeptic version of Basil Fawlty, he rages against the world with manic vitality. Morrissey is utterly believable at every turn – from his ghastly termination of Hennessy’s life, to his continual savaging of the unaccountably loyal Syd and his haranguing of his drinking buddies, to his strained relationship with his wife and his disdain for Mooney. There are two big twists in the final scene and Morrissey handles both with considerable acuity. It is a genuinely impressive turn in every way.
Andy Nyman gets under the oily, sweaty skin of the odious Syd and leaves a stain wherever he treads. There might be livelier, subtler and funnier performances of this role, but it would be hard to find an oilier one. Nyman is like the grease to Morrissey’s wheel and, at times, he is both too little and too much.
Sally Rogers is superb as the gin-swilling wife of Harry and her final moment with him is beautifully done. Bronwyn James is excellent too as Harry’s daughter, Shirley, and although relatively brief, her performance is sure and compelling. John Hodgkinson is frightening superb as the enraged and defamed Pierrepoint and his scene is the highlight of the play.
But the standout performance of the evening comes from Johnny Flynn, whose portrayal of Mooney is mesmerising. He perfectly encapsulates the style of Sixties idols – such as Hywell Bennett – combining a louche indifference with intelligence, wit and casual viciousness. He is attractive and bizarre simultaneously. Flynn plays the “stranger”, the “outsider” perfectly, ensuring that you assume that what Harry and Syd believe about him is correct. He is enigmatic in his scene with James’ Shirley and slightly frightening – in an Alfred Hitchcock Frenzy kind of way – in his café duologue with Syd. Magnetic and offbeat, Flynn performs better here than I have ever seen him.
Anna Fleischle’s set is marvellous. The harsh, unrelenting, spartan cell and gallows which houses the first scene establishes the tension between power, justice and the law. The actual hanging of Hennessy is gut-clenchingly real. Then, as time passes, the transition to Harry’s pub is seamless and Fleischle perfectly summons up a Manchester pub and, with the help of Joshua Carr’s eerie use of shadow and dim light, evokes a space where you can all but feel the slightly soiled floor, smell the stale smell of cigarette, spilt beer and stale urine and hesitate at the grimness of surroundings that pass for cheerful. After interval, there is the surprising addition of the local café, which is splendidly realised as well. It’s a quite beautiful and arresting set, and it permits much theatrical genius.
Hangmen is a play well worth seeing. It’s not a comedy and nor is it particularly funny. But its bitter glimpse into the savagery of capital punishment, its endless consequences, and the damage the mere possibility of its existence does to society makes it an important and timely play for today. It may be over fifty years since the last man swung from official gallows in the UK, but McDonagh makes the point that injustice, disguised as comradeship and solidarity, is choking the life out of the country in a number of ways.
McDonagh’s play may cause you to rethink the Sixties; it also has quite a lot to say about 2015, the year of its birth.