Hangmen – Royal Court Theatre, until 10 October 2015 (tickets – returns only)
Expectations ran high for Hangmen, Martin McDonagh’s first new play for the London stage after ten years away. In the intervening years he turned his attention to Hollywood and delivered one of the most impressive debuts of recent times with In Bruges – a film that is remarkable for having managed to make it through the torturous process of film financing with its jet black content largely intact and, equally impressively, managing to get a good performance out of Colin Farrell.
For Hangmen he moves out of the small Irish villages where he made his name. However even as the landscape changes, the faces remain resolutely familiar. In the depressed Northern landscape of the 1950’s comes a cast of characters every bit as recognisable as those inhabitants of rural Ireland; spending their days congregating in the local pub, and being every bit as feckless as those seen in The Cripple of Inishmaan. Lacking any real clear sense of backbone, they spend their time revolving around the kind of minor celebrity that can hold together a kingly court in a land like this; David Morrisey’s Harry Wade – Britain’s last hangman, and every bit the self-proclaimed equal of that ‘bloody Pierrepoint’.
What makes a McDonagh play so enjoyable to watch is that you genuinely have no idea what direction it is going to go. Within the opening quarter there is a spectacular coup d’ theatre that changes the dynamic of the play entirely and throughout the plot jack-knifes at unexpected angles. Many playwrights attempt this kind of shift but few are very successful. It requires building an implicit trust in the audience that the pay-off is worth undercutting the narrative flow. McDonagh has wit and plot devices to burn, and there is a ghoulish horror in suddenly recognising that where he has decided to go with a story is so much further than you would have thought someone would have dared take it. His earlier plays have amply demonstrated that he is a master at finding the absurdities in the grotesque, and if Hangmen never quite reaches the blackest pitch of his early work then it still displays enough of his trademarks to make it an entertaining, if very slightly more West End friendly, production.
McDonagh is an actor’s writer. He gives charismatic performers the chance to revel in scintillating dialogue that is in shockingly poor taste but always undercut by a roguish charm that makes even the blackest heart slightly lovable. At Hangmen’s core is David Morrissey; a man built for the stage. He effortlessly commands proceedings and dominates the stage with a physicality and intensity that suggests there is the potential for truly great performances.
He plays the part to perfection – a man totally in hock to the legend that he has created for himself. It is no doubt with a knowing smile that McDonagh allows Wade just enough rope to hang himself with. The interview he gives to the local newspaper – full of bravado and pomposity – is one of an emperor parading in front of the crowd safe in the knowledge that his court would never dare mention the questionable choice in clothing. He is a man drunk on adulation and with enough intelligence to crush any dissenting voices. Yet like any king who reigns without power, ultimately he is at the whim of his subjects and when he needs them the most he finds they abandon him.