One of the most powerful aspects of theatre lies in its ability to respond quickly and viscerally to major events; often provoking and challenging its audience. Productions like The Riots and Sochi 2014 elicit strong reactions that live on in the gut, long after leaving the building. The beauty, and often the ugliness, of documentary theatre is in its immediacy, its touching of a nerve. The Hard Man‘s original staging at the Traverse took place amidst a media storm, when its co-writer and subject Jimmy Boyle (or Johnny Byrne as he is known in the play) (Martin Docherty) was still incarcerated in Glasgow’s Barlinnie; most of Scotland had an incredibly strong opinion about him and his perceived use of the play as a public soapbox to campaign for release. Hearing Boyle’s own words speak to you on stage from his distant prison cell must have been electrifying at the time.
As pointed out by Peter Lichtenfels, aptly enough in the production’s own playtext, there is valid reason to wonder how this will play today. The question with any revival should always be; why now? To a modern audience, Boyle’s rags to prison cell journey is not an unfamiliar narrative; poverty, crime and eventual imprisonment are conflated in the media every day and the idea of a life sentence is not new to us as it was in the 1970s, when Boyle was one of the highest profile cases to be convicted of murder after the abolishment of the death penalty. This is no longer an audience dealing with the fresh reality that murderers would now be allowed to live on, with even the possibility of release, or a community angered and puzzled by the impunity with which one of their own was allowed to benefit from and exact extreme punishment for his loan sharking “services”.
Contrary to many original critical responses to the production, it is not overly sympathetic to Boyle. His tautology is that “violence is its own reason” – he enjoys the power of being unpredictable, ruthlessly controlling and abusing those that he seems to accumulate like disciples, including battered girlfriend Carol (Ruth Milne).The hardship of growing up in the slums of the Gorbals and the brutality of prison staff don’t render him any less ruthless, any less intangible. There’s something strongly inscrutable about Docherty’s portrayal of Boyle that is compellingly magnetic. Despite brief flashes of humanity, his motivations and affections remain unclear and it seems that, contrary to winning sympathy and support, Boyle was keen to portray himself as every inch the hard man of the title. Docherty’s physicality is incredible, particularly during his abuse in prison; he becomes animalistic, pacing his cage, all pulsing veins and tensing muscles, lashing out at those that come too near.
Tom McCarthy’s script is cleverly constructed for a tight staging, with many of the cast doubling up as incidental characters in Boyle’s life – including a ghostlike prison janitor. However, its original strengths have now become its failings – while it hints at larger questions (is the prison system a “university education” for a life of further crime? How do we dehumanise prisoners? How prevalent is abuse? Can it ever be justified?), its focus remains wholly and solely on telling the story of a man whom a large section of the modern audience unfortunately have no engagement with. Boyle’s influence on the script, while compelling in its original iteration, means that there is little here that could be termed universal narrative.