Dark humour, verbal sparring and a drink in the pub, the theatre production of Hangmen takes a journey into the crevices of the mind of a certified killer
1963. A bleak, painted brick cell with only a narrow bed, shelf and bare light-bulb offering comfort. Monastic and almost holy in its silence but then the heavy cell door clangs open and everything is tumult and violence. The young prisoner rants and raves and clings to anything solid within his reach but the judicial conveyor belt is rolling under his feet, taking him to his death. Until the moment the trapdoor slams open and he disappears from view with a noose around his neck, the condemned man is the most vital in the scene, declaring his innocence and cursing those that have come to calmly extinguish his life, the bowl-hatted executioner and his weasel-bodied assistant. This scene opens Martin McDonagh’s new play Hangmen as incandescently as the first rocket on Guy Fawkes Night.
The prison cell ascends from the stage as if raptured and then we descend into banal reality; a pub in Oldham, all wood, smoke and tea-coloured light. Three drunks, a lean detective with a pencil moustache, a nervously glamorous landlady and the executioner again, behind the bar, pulling beers and refusing to speak to the portly journalist chasing his comment on the abolition of capital punishment. Caught between boastfulness and the desire to mark his place in the fame hallway of executioners, Henry Wade’s inability to reflect, question and confess his acts cuts through this play.
Henry Wade and Albert Pierrepoint are the George Foreman and Muhammad Ali of Yorkshire, their egotistical sparring reflected in the teasing, insulting and often comic dialogue that flicks between all the characters. The eagerness that this play, McDonagh’s first in London for more than a decade, was met with meant that a kind of hysteria was present in the audience. Rather slight jokes were met with howls of laughter and squeals of delight. However, as with all of McDonagh’s plays there is an edge of violence and chaos. Johnny Flynn, playing menacing Londoner Mooney, uses his handsome face and urbane confidence to chisel away at Wade’s granite façade.
The story unfolds at an unforced pace and the suspense builds quickly as Harry Wade realises that his past as an executioner cannot be so easily quarantined from his humdrum family life in Oldham. Ethical questions of culpability, both his own and of those he hanged, come back to haunt him and one particular case, that of the young prisoner we met at the beginning of the play, casts a long shadow.
McDonagh’s talent is in creating characters that are guileless yet perceptive; they unrelentingly squirrel out each other’s weaknesses, prejudices, neuroses and secrets. Much of the play’s dark comedy comes from the off-hand barbs the pub regulars throw at each other and their occasional visitors, but the humour takes an even darker turn when it’s leavened with Wade’s twisted pride at being “just as good an executioner as Pierrepoint”.
Hangmen says little about execution as a moral or social dilemma. Wade claims to have no interest in the judicial process that puts men and women at the end of his noose and to sleep well after each execution, but he also confesses to reading all of the testimonies against one condemned man and believing fully in his guilt. The audience is left to decipher exactly what brought Wade to his strange calling and what impact it has had on him psychologically. He insists that his task was to end the life of the prisoner with as little suffering and loss of dignity as possible, but the last few words of the play reveal a need deep within Wade for the particular kind of intimacy that exists between prisoner and executioner.
The production of Hangmen is showing at the Royal Court Theatre until 10th October 2015.
Photo Credits: Simon Annand / Actors: Ryan Pope (Charlie), James Dryden (Clegg) and Josef Davies (Hennessy)
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