Irish Blood, English Heart

Hangmen – Royal Court Theatre, until 10 October 2015 (tickets – returns only)

Transfer to Wyndham’s Theatre confirmed, from 01 December 2015  (tickets)

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.

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Radcliffe crippled by burden of expectation

The Cripple of Inishmaan – Noel Coward Theatre, until 31 August (some tickets available)

It is the website that gives it away. Alight on Michael Grandage Company and it is all too clear that this play is less about the ‘Company’ and very much about a certain Daniel Radcliffe. This is not in itself a criticism of Michael Grandage or Daniel Radcliffe. One must swallow the bitter pill of realism when it comes to the financial dynamics of the West End, which is, if you want to stage a play like The Cripple of Inishmaan for 12 weeks in one of the larger theatres of the West End then you must have an ace up your sleeve to get the audiences in.

Daniel Radcliffe is quite an ace, and paired with Martin McDonagh – notably of In Brugges and, rather less notably, Seven Psychopaths fame – the evening is set for quite a potent mix. The problem is that at times it feels that Michael Grandage has been so keen to find an edgy, modern play to entice a young actor looking to mould his career that he has failed to notice that he has chosen one of McDonagh’s weakest plays.

In Brugges had some incredibly dark scenes but was leavened by its acute sense of place and the fish-out-of-water verbal sparring of its two leads. The Lieutenant of Inishmore looks for black comedy and manages to eventually locate it in something the colour of pitch; a breathtakingly offensive yet hilarious play about the troubles of an Irish torturer considered too mad for the IRA.

McDonagh’s first play – The Beauty Queen of Leeane – won four Tony Awards and has a plot that marvellously manages to deceive its audience at every turn. It is rightly revered as a near-classic and a stunning achievement from the then-25 year old. Unfortunately the Young Vic revived it in a celebrated production less than two years ago and there are certainly no Radcliffe-shaped parts in it.

Daniel Radcliffe - STAR (not pictured: other actors)

The Cripple of Inishmaan is not a bad play and it follows McDonagh’s other plays in exploring an Ireland that seems to exist out of time. Eventually it can be placed temporally in the mid-1930’s but realistically it could be anytime from 1780 to 1980. On these rural islands the sense is that life continues much as it has always done; roles are fixed and nicknames determine character rather than other way. The arrival of the film crew on a nearby island is the jolt that throws the island off its axis – it acts as the classic outsider who engenders change on the local and drives the actions of the play.

Daniel Radcliffe plays Cripplebilly – a young man cursed with a limp and a name that he cannot shake. He sees the arrival of a film crew as his chance off the island and Hollywood as a place where his disability can be, if not accepted, at least overlooked.

It is another undeniably smart decision in the post-Potter career for Radcliffe. He deserves a great deal of credit for tackling Equus – a difficult play and a difficult part – and so far he has broadly eschewed the Hollywood-fodder that would seem so tempting. The lead in a reasonably intelligent The Women In Black and acting alongside Jon Hamm in ‘A Young Doctor’s Notebook’ on Sky Arts are the only real mainstream exposure he has received in a post-Potter universe. If the adaptation of Bulgakov’s short stories was a bit of a mixed bag it still represents a remarkably leftfield step for someone with the choice of pretty much any script.

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