It’s basically Heartbeat, is the thing. You remember Heartbeat, don’t you? Bobbies on motorbikes; Gina at the bar, polishing glasses in a high-neck, high-hemline print dress; ex-cons and ex-coppers sipping warm ale from dimpled side-arm pint glasses; the long stretches of desolate northern moorland. Sunday night. Tea time. Very nice. Yum yum yum.
Martin McDonagh, British theatre’s most unrelentingly cruel motherfucker, has taken his own swing at it, with a crepuscular comedy as dark as a pint of mild that someone’s shat in, that puts the gallows directly into gallows humour and then hangs it by the neck until it’s just a pile of shattered vertebrae. It’s funny enough to cause severe internal hemorrhaging, as wildly offensive as anything you’ll see this year, and it’s packed into a tense, genre-savvy and absolutely satisfying thriller.
Set on the day of the abolition of hanging, in the bar of Britain’s last hangman, Harry Wade, it’s a classic pub play under the shadow of the noose. There’s a sense in which McDonagh could write this kind of thing in his sleep, with its cast of drunken caricatures bobbling along with vintage sit-com patter (one of them’s deaf, one of them’s thick, one of them’s an irritating arsehole), watched over by an off-duty freeloading copper, but you’re quickly reminded that he does it an awful lot better than most. Wade is a brilliant creation, historically an amalgamation of real-life executioners Harry Allen and Stephen Wade, but really the inheritor of a long-line of self-regarding English idiots, a Basil Fawlty of the bar-taps. He exemplifies McDonagh’s skill at taking familiar types, plundered from decades of television and radio, apparently already thread-bare with overuse, and invigorating them with his pitch perfect ear for absurd phrasings and oddities of dialect.
Wade is a crap hangman, who we first see making a botch of the execution of a young man desperately pleading his innocence, fiercely jealous of fellow executioner Albert Pierrepoint’s formidable reputation. He boasts and blusters to his miniscule coterie of cronies, is tolerated by his wife, and berates his daughter Shirley for moping and over-eating. The arrival of young stranger Mooney from the south, a mop-haired Londoner (or near enough) with a peculiar manner, and the return of Wade’s meek, stuttering assistant Syd suggests the return of some vengeful ghosts from the past.
Matthew Dunster’s production is a masterpiece, as smart if not smarter than McDonagh’s script. On Anna Fleischle’s gorgeous set, with a prison cell that rises to reveal the best onstage pub in the history of onstage pubs, and opens to reveal a rain-soaked greasy spoon at the top of Act Two, he performs a brilliant pastiche of British 60’s noir. Lightning storms and battered umbrellas, shadows of men and women through grimy pub windows, cigarette machines and burgers and chips. It’s not only phenomenally detailed, it’s pushed just far enough into the hyper-real to acknowledge the composite origins of McDonagh’s world. Its pub is the ur-pub, its ashtrays are the ur-ashtrays, its rain-storm is the child of every rainstorm ever filmed on a 60’s British sound stage.
The cast is impeccable too, with David Morrissey owning every scene he bluffs through as Wade, and a brilliant comic turn from Reece Shearsmith as the hapless Syd. The part was clearly written for him, and a series of revelations concerning his interest in the private parts of a certain dead gangster are larynx-crushingly funny. It’s a huge and hugely talented ensemble piece, but it’s Johnny Flynn’s performance as Mooney that gives Hangmen its atmosphere of dread. He is genuinely uncanny, the source of his considerable menace impossible to pin down.
It’s not the most sophisticated of plots, and in many ways we’re left waiting for twists that never come, but McDonagh’s mastery of the teetering of his tone, fuggedly swaying between comedy and violence, means that you’re never quite sure of your footing. McDonagh’s rap-sheet helps too. Having witnessed the scrap of skull and bone hanging off Maggie’s head in The Beauty Queen of Leenane, the mutilated pussy-cat of The Lieutenant of Inishmore or the entirety of The Pillowman, we know exactly what he’s capable of. When naïve and vulnerable Shirley heads off for a day at the beach with the whacked out Mooney, we fear the very, very worst.
In the canon of his own work, it’s In Bruges that Hangmen most closely resembles, but in fact it’s another Jerwood Downstairs premiere – Mojo, that weighs most heavily on the play. The visibly damaged Mooney, a hair’s breadth away from true psychopathy, is a clear relative of dead-eyed Baby, the twisting plot of double-crosses, the absurd notions of loyalty and the siege-like climax all point to a northern 1960’s take on Jez Butterworth’s classic debut. Hangmen is much less intense, much less vital, its rhythms dictated by the heaviness of ale rather than the speed of amphetamines, but it embodies something of that sense of a country on the change, of a sad and worthless old world collapsing.
McDonagh has been criticised in the past for making a sort of misery theme park out of his (not at all native) Ireland. His early plays were packed with grotesques, with plots that snapped shut like something from the Grand Guignol, spoken in a language of casual, everyday violence and decrepitude. McDonagh doesn’t really do defense, but his more kindly critics have always pointed to the satire his work contains of the impact of British rule, of its continued fetid influence on the ambitions of Ireland’s poor.
Hangmen works in a similar way, with a similarly casual approach to its decipherability (cf: McDonagh and his barren field of fucks), this England is one that has only just overcome its addiction to retribution, and even this cessation of state-sponsored murder is visibly unpopular. It is an England where wartime values such as stoicism and ‘keeping one’s own council’ have yet to be fully exploded for the hypocrisies that they are. It’s one where the old are drinking themselves into a self-satisfied stupor, while the young are reading Nietzsche and Kierkegaard and forming their own ideas. Mooney could be your daughter’s fast new boyfriend, and you’d better hope he’s packing some condoms, or he could be Ian Brady, in which case you better hope she comes home alive. 1963 was the year that sexual intercourse began, with something of a bang, if you believe the history books. This is two years later, and the cracks are beginning to show.
A period-piece through and through, Hangmen nonetheless keeps one eye on contemporary culture, one eye just below the line on your average article on crime and punishment in the Daily Mail, or the Telegraph. McDonagh has read the comments, and his cast of murder-minded bar-flies and broken men are the obvious contributors. You suspect that anything as easy as a message can be heaped on McDonagh’s bonfire of disdain, but there is a humanity somewhere beneath the nicotine staining and invective.
It’s a complaint as age-old as his perceived cultural appropriation, but a word does have to be said about the sheer levels of cruelty, and particularly misogynist cruelty, inflicted in Hangmen. McDonagh has painted an ugly picture of an ugly world, but there are lines here, particularly the more flippant, less urgent ones, that in going a bit far, don’t go quite far enough, and end as just flatly and strangely nasty. Attacks on Shirley’s weight are part of the horrid misery of her life, and mitigated at least partly by work to round her off as a character, just as the bickering monsters of Leenane were redeemed by hints of their inner lives, but casual references to one man’s wife as a ‘pig’, and joke after joke that lands at one woman or another’s perceived hideousness, begin to take up more of the running time, and account for more of the punch-lines than seems necessary or welcome. McDonagh has cultivated the kind of persona that wouldn’t give a flying fish about any of that, of course, and in its unrelenting unpleasantness Hangmen is fairly resistant to accusations of racism or sexism, but here, somehow more than in his earlier work, they niggle.
They can’t bury the achievement, though, or stifle the laughter, however many hands are clamped over mouths. McDonagh has created a comic noir coloured with the blackest and most everyday scraps of English culture. It’s heinous, it’s rotten, it’s painfully funny, and it’s still here.