by Martin McDonagh
directed by Matthew Dunster
Wyndham’s Theatre, London
Hennessy – Josef Davies
Clegg – James Dryden
Mooney – Johnny Flynn
Bill – Tony Hirst
Pierrepoint – John Hodgkinson
Shirley – Bronwyn James
Harry – David Morrissey
Syd – Andy Nyman
Inspector Fry – Craig Parkinson
Charlie – Ryan Pope
Alice – Sally Rogers
Arthur – Simon Rouse
After a stunning stretch of plays set in the West Country of Ireland, the playwright Martin McDonagh found himself saddled with literary freight. Could he—or did he even want to—extend the legacy of Irish drama into unforeseeable territory? From Yeats onward, the audience for Irish drama had quaffed a brew of poverty and poetry, blarney and eloquence, myth and the kitchen sink. Suddenly, like the young Sam Shepard and his equally meteoric rise, McDonagh found a style no one anticipated, as viscerally violent as Shepard’s, as psychologically edgy, and as recklessly antagonistic toward the audience’s comfort zone.
McDonagh’s early masterpieces—that’s what I think they are—like The Beauty Queen of Leenane (1996) imbue literary Ireland with the zany mayhem and cockeyed black humor of Quentin Tarantino. In fact, one always worries that McDonagh will slip into the same tar pit that swallows up Tarantino’s vicious clowns, making them pointless beyond their shock value. The sub-genre of British zany violence became chic in Guy Richie movies like Lock, Stock, and Two Blazing Barrels (1998) and Snatch (2000), but it has deeper, more disturbing roots on stage with Joe Orton’s black comedies. McDonagh has the bile of a born satirist in him and the ferocity to dissect human nature with a merciless glint.
In his new play, Hangmen, which premiered at the adventurous Royal Court Theatre (the modern maker of literary stardom in London) before moving on to the West End, McDonagh has achieved a popular and critical smash hit. The play’s satiric conceit is that Britain’s last hangman is vying for celebrity status with his predecessor, a more renowned executioner who threatens to steal the limelight. The setting is a seedy pub in the northern town of Oldham, with our vexatious, insecure hangman, Harry Wade (David Morrissey), finding himself out of a job with the abolition of capital punishment in 1965. The plot hinges on the execution of an innocent man—we actually view his excruciating execution in a prologue set two years earlier, in 1963—a gross miscarriage of justice that led to the abolition bill in Parliament. Harry, who presided over the hanging, becomes entangled in it anew when he gives a boasting interview to a local newspaper that brings the whole gruesome business back to life.
Enter Mooney (the bizarrely hypnotic Johnny Flynn), a patter-rattling variant on the chilling blond killers played by Richard Widmark in Hollywood film noir. Mooney riles up Harry’s vanity and rage, intruding on the tiny kingdom of alcoholic hangers on who treat the last hangman as a local light. Without going further into Mooney’s dark designs, one can see why McDonagh finds ample scope here for savage farce, to use a term T. S. Eliot applied to Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta. This is scabrous vaudeville, with deliberately cheap lines, as when Harry accuses someone of lazily hanging around, “Pardon the pun.” In fact, it’s the verbal slapstick that tickled the critics but bothers me. What is McDonagh actually up to?
There can be no definite answer. In Brian Friel’s hands, a pub setting in an obscure Irish village gathers people into a portrait of social malaise while at the same time exploiting alcohol’s capacity for removing inhibitions—drink makes the customers teary and confessional. It exposes deep longings and haunting failures in the tradition of The Iceman Cometh. So far so good, because McDonagh has the craft to incorporate these threads without slowing the pace of his racy shenanigans. The major spoiler that the newspaper critics don’t reveal is that Harry winds up hanging Mooney in the back of his pub, an act of cringing hilarity that carries Harry back into the career he loved.
This is where the bothersomeness comes in. The twists and turns of farce (what one astute reviewer called McDonagh’s “switchback writing”) are relentless, and once the audience is caught in the grip of the machinery, any pauses for character revelation, when they occur, are fleeting. Harry has an overweight, insecure teenage daughter, “our Shirley” (Bronwyn James) who is seduced and abducted by Mooney. She’s a perfect type for sympathy, whether treated by O’Neill, Behan, or Friel, but McDonagh folds her into the prevailing screamers who are off their nut. In the second major spoiler, after Harry has hanged Mooney while trying to extort a confession about what he has done with the missing girl, a pouting Shirley comes waltzing back home, hungry for her mother’s pudding and defiant about sleeping with Mooney, which she did without coercion. Having committed a second gross miscarriage of justice and feeling equally blithe about it, Harry and his former assistant Syd (Andy Nyman) are left to dispose of Mooney’s body, which they lift up with caressing nostalgia, back in the game again.
As a theatrical event that rises or falls on its performers, Hangmen virtually soars. Morrissey (familiar as the horrific Governor on the smash hit TV series, The Walking Dead) is a towering presence on stage, filled with vainglory and rage on the order of John Cleese in Fawlty Towers with many extra dashes of threat. The barflies are mesmerizing sad sacks, each given his own shtick, like the deaf old man Arthur (Simon Rouse), who uses his infirmity to expose one embarrassing elephant in the room after another while innocently pretending not to see them. But even with perfect casting, a play’s long-range survival depends on its literary quality, and Hangmen represents a step backward from McDonagh’s later masterpiece, perhaps his magnum opus, The Pillowman (2003), which exposed the harrowing misanthropy of a writer in the lineage of Swift, Beckett, and Pinter. That’s an exalted standard to reach, of course, and I have no idea whether McDonagh, having breezily won not one but two Academy Awards (for the brilliantly sardonic In Bruges and a lesser known short film, Six Shooter), puts any stock in theater now.
He has openly stated his preference for films over the stage. “It’s not that I don’t respect theatre,” he told an interviewer in 2013. “I’m intelligent enough to know that a play can completely inspire a person as much as a film…[but] theatre isn’t something that’s connected to me. From a personal point of view, I can’t appreciate what I’m doing.” One is reminded that McDonagh, living on the dole in London as a young man, had attended only one play before writing his masterful early corpus—astonishing. He’s also remarked that “theater will never be as edgy as I want it to be,” which sounds not so much like pampered arrogance as Tarantino strutting his movies without regard for their flashy hollowness. It’s discouraging that McDonagh wrote the totally Tarantino-esque flop, Seven Psychopaths (2012), where he made the fatal mistake of abandoning his native milieu for zippy, zappy Los Angeles.
McDonagh turns 46 this year, and despite the Olivier Awards in London and the Oscars and Tonys in America, blowing away the fluff of celebrity actors flocking to be in his works, I wonder if he is suffering from a failure of nerve. The bleakness of such a scathing imagination can’t be easy to confront personally, and McDonagh has had his fallow periods—Hangmen comes after ten years without a new play in the West End. At the very least his Aran Island plays, Beauty Queen, and Pillowman should insure his lasting reputation, whatever the future holds in store.
Note: a March broadcast in HD is set for London in March. for possible U.S. showings, check at ntlive.nationaltheatre.org.uk.