Theatre report from Simon Jenner
Hangmen now comes with huge endorsements. Is it justified? Matthew Dunster makes the most of the differently-proportioned play with its prequel cell scene and pub, a masterly naturalism designed by Anna Fleischle.
The play’s no simple re-examination of period attitudes, but a refraction of fresh techniques turned period in exploring second-best hangman, Harry Wade. The Ortonesque – both farce and character – explodes at the prologue’s hanging of the luckless, ‘I’m innocent’ Hennessey, a black comedy where ‘if you let go you can die more quickly’, and later embodied in the wannabe-lodger-and-menacer Mooney.
Harry’s David Morrissey struts alpha-male for most of the length, dominating ex-colleague Andy Nyman he’d had dismissed for mentioning the length of a gangster’s penis, and even the local Inspector Bill (Tony Hurst) as well as his pub’s regulars, kow-tow.
It’s how this culture fans out into family, and the consequences, that render layers of sexist and racist assumptions McDonagh mainlines into the narrative. Sally Rogers, Harry’s bored wife has reason to suspect Harry’s best erections were with a noose and their big daughter Shirley, an explosive Bronwyn James who bellows out her shyness is interested in one thing just as men are, she later confirms. Harry’s interview damning rival Pierrepoint might impress locals, but not them. It doesn’t impress Pierrepoint either.
Enter the Pinter-tinged Ortonesque of Mooney’s two-dimensional ‘menace’ as he likes to impress on the luckless assistant hangman. Sinister charmer Johnny Flynn gives himself enough rope by insinuating he might be the murderer of the woman Hennessey was hanged for, and has now kidnapped Shirley. His lies might come back to choke his floridly suggestive arabesques.
The first Act seems a touch formulaic, quoting 1960s techniques and dramatists with little spin; and David Morrissey plays one note till the second half where anger, grief, loss of control and his profession play over him to more affective ends.
The second act’s three great strokes bar the opening transform the drama to something masterly. A threatened hanging of Mooney (gotta have a gimmick, here it’s hanging); then Pierrepoint’s entry which complicates interrogation since Mooney’s shrouded by a curtain. Pierrepoint drags the chair further and further away, refuting the inference that his hair smells of death; all including Harry cower before a bigger bully to sniff it. Then the coup of a great tirade from an as unexpected quarter as Pierrepoint.
All master strokes, though The Playboy of the Western World also comes to mind, as well as Butterworth’s Mojo and a bit of The Long Good Friday for the hanging. Morrissey did get the opportunity to nuance in the second half; so did wife Sally Rogers eyeing her husband in a new, even more unsavoury light. But the end when Harry lets go of his true profession, is true tragi-comedy. ‘I miss it’ he cries, touches more than Orton would: McDonagh’s distinction resonates in a manner peculiar to him alone.