'Hangmen' review or 'How tight shall we tie this noose?'

Hangmen, Martin McDonagh
Royal Court Theatre, 23rd September 2015

Most plays take a while to warm up. Most productions ease you in. ‘Hangmen’,  written in one virtuoso sweep by Martin McDonagh, kicks off at full pelt. The first scene will leave you gobsmacked and you’ll spend the rest of the production playing catch up. There’s no time to breathe, think or  judge and – no matter how hard you try  – McDonagh and his director Matthew Dunster will always be one step ahead of you. It’s audacious, appalling, thrilling theatre.

McDonagh hasn’t had a play up in 12 years. ‘Hangmen’ has been gestating for 14 years. All of that sounds like a recipe for a rather stale play, but the brilliant thing about ‘Hangmen’ is just how fresh and spontaneous feels. It is beautifully textured and forensically constructed – and the dialogue fits the actors seamlessly – and yet there’s not a single moment that feels effortful. It’s as if ‘Hangmen’ emerged from McDonagh fully formed; an ugly, panting beast ready to hit the stage and run.

The play is set in the 1960s, just before and after the abolition of hanging in the 1960s. Can you believe this shit was still going on as recently as then? The production essentially repeats that question – high pitched and shocked and a little bit strangled – but wraps it up in some spikey, twisting comedy that will softly tickle your funny bone and then slap you clean and hard in the face.

David Morrissey plays Harry the Hangman. Harry is the second-best hangman in England and he’s mightily proud of his work. In his time, Harry has personally tied a noose around over 200 convicts’ necks. But things are looking bleak for Harry. Hanging has been abolished and Harry’s nemesis - chief hangman Pierrepoint - is still out there, preening around and ruling the roost. All Harry has left now is his pub, his wife and daughter and a bunch of yes men who bleat in admiration as they chug down Harry’s dirty pints.

Designer Anna Fleischle has conjured up an extraordinarily convincing pub-set. The set is packed with downtrodden detail - crumby staircases, musty corridors, battered chairs, swinging doors and a general air of twilight staleness – and it feels bloody real indeed. It’s a brilliant setting for a play that will screw with our moral compass, yet comfort and seduce as at the same time. The play and the pub work in tandem: we are lulled into thinking we are in a safe space. We are teased into letting our guard down. We are shown the worst side of ourselves and then sent blinking into the daylight, fucked and frightened.

Despite a vicious opening scene, the play then settles into a fierce but familiar rhythm; a little pub banter here; a domestic spat there; a few set-jokes over there and some hearty laughs at the expense of the local dunce. We are on familiar ground and, with Harry the Hangmen safely installed behind the bar, we forget to despise or at least distrust him. This is the barman in a pub comedy. He might look a little like a shiny conker – and give off the distinct impression that he has a giant statue of himself stuck up his ass – but he is in a pub comedy now. We can laugh at his stunning pomposity but it is essentially harmless good fun; shocking but somehow protected by the surroundings.  

Life at Harry’s pub is disrupted by the appearance of the ‘seemingly sinister’ Mooney, played with an awesome, casual menace by Johnny Flynn.  Flynn enters and it’s like every threatening Pinter pause ever written now fizzes manically under the surface.  Only, with McDonagh, the menace is so close to the comedy’ surface that it’s just about poking through; turn the dial a fraction of an inch and all those laughs will turn into something so cruel that it’ll take your breath away. There is the constant threat in ‘Hangmen’ that something quite astonishingly ugly will break free at any moment - yet the comedy is so robust and so daring, the writing and acting so finely tuned, that the play somehow never falls apart. This is one of the most thrilling dramatic balancing acts you’ll ever see.

At a rather frantic but seductive pace, the stakes are smoothly but swiftly increased: the comedy grows that much more heightened and the danger that lies beneath becomes more and more real. Initially, then, the contrasts between the danger and comedy are relatively low key (at least in the context of what is an exceptionally amped up play). We laugh at Harry as he boasts about his achievements as a hangman; ha, what a pompous publically-sanctioned murderer he is! Later, in the pub, we chuckle as Harry’s wife glibly belittles her daughter; but it’s a comedy and there’s love there, so it really it’s OK! Later, we gasp as Mooney’s threat solidifies into something potentially quite brutal and real. There’s the most incredible scene in a cafĂ© in which all manners of horrors are released and yet we laugh and we laugh and we laugh.

The clashing tones and ugly laughs keep getting stretched and stretched until, eventually, we chuckle uproariously as a puffed-up Frenchman farts about on stage as somebody else suffers a slow and painful death behind a hastily drawn curtain. We will literally laugh at anything. But that’s OK, right? This is theatre, people! This is England!