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Martin McDonagh’s ‘Hangmen,’ Theater Review

Cast of Hangmen by Martin McDonagh (Joan Marcus)

The year 1965 signifies a momentous occasion. By 204 votes to 104, The Murder Act has abolished hanging and the death penalty for those convicted of murder in Great Britain. For human rights advocates and those agreeing that capital punishment isn’t a deterrent, thus, civilized countries shouldn’t practice tribal law, there is rejoicing. For hangmen across the UK, there is less enthusiasm. Martin McDonagh’s sardonic, brutal, unapologetic and macabre humor works brilliantly in his dark comedy Hangmen about some hangmen which centers around the end of hanging in the UK. Hangmen which won McDonagh the 2016 Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Play, begins with an official hanging and ends two years later after the death penalty has been abolished.

(L to R): Alfie Allen, David Threlfall, Hangmen by Martin McDonagh (Joan Marcus)

Currently on Broadway at the Golden Theatre, in Hangmen McDonagh centrifuges the wicked human impulses of irrationality, arrogance, machismo and the mechanical banality of evil, then sends these elements into the stratosphere of random circumstance. Add to that mischance, misadventure and mishap, an ironic and inevitably surprising McDonagh-style conclusion is seamlessly effected in this engaging, comedic work. One finds the events mysterious, grisly and lurid until one allows the belly laughs to erupt and the smiles to pop up on one’s face at the systematic take down of males, their grotesque appreciation of insult humor, barbarism and their dung-heap grossness which females are sometimes a party to.

Cast of Hangmen by Martin McDonagh (Joan Marcus)

How McDonagh maintains the balancing act of the humorous with the gruesome, effectively weaving the tonal grace to bring on laughter through organic characterizations, always astounds. He accomplished this in the uproarious A Behanding in Spokane (2010) on Broadway (starring Christopher Walken and Sam Rockwell), and in his other works, with the selection of exceptional actors who understand not to “force the laughs” but just to slide into inhabiting the beings that are incredibly loathsome under other circumstances. In the McDonagh settings and arc of developments, what unfolds is the revelation of humanity in all its inglorious ungraciousness. McDonagh’s humans suffer and joke about it, not attempting to evolve or better their soul wretchedness. They just wallow and lay about. In that there is the humor.

This especially applies for the characters and situations in Hangmen, whose chief irony is that the national acceptance of brutality in destroying human life as a punishment for destroying human life (a mild form of genocide), has ended. But the state of human nature which is tribal and hideously, wickedly murderous continues. It’s the same old, same old. And perhaps with capital punishment abolished, it is indeed worse.

(L to R): David Threlfall, Andy Nyman, Richard Hollis, John Horton, Jeremy Crutchley in Hangmen (Joan Marcus)

McDonagh investigates various themes about “the company of men,” the willful deceit of human nature and its impish cruelty and brutality, and other themes in the Hangmen, whose focus lands on Harry, the hangman (the wonderful David Threlfall). Harry owns a pub in the north of England and entertains as the king of his space the usual locals who come in for more than a pint. These wayward alcoholics, which he obliges and indulges, include Bill (Richard Hollis), Charlie (Ryan Pope), and the near deaf Arthur (the hysterical John Horton). Occasionally, Inspector Fry (Jeremy Crutchley), drops in, adds his wisdom to the comments of the tipsy crowd, who fall into a natural banter as the alcohol buzz takes over their minds.

On the sterling occasion (for potential murderers in the UK), of the passage of The Murder Act, reporter Clegg (Owen Campbell), comes to the pub to interview Harry about his past glories as a hangman, which initially Harry refuses, then agrees to out of earshot of his clientele. Others who drop in and exacerbate the events which gyrate out of control in Act II are Syd (Ryan Pope), Harry’s former colleague that Harry fired for exclaiming about a male corpse’s lifted genetalia and other inappropriate mistakes. Additionally, there is Harry’s wife Alice (Tracie Bennett), and his teenage daughter Shirley (Gaby French).

(L to R): Tracie Bennett, Gaby French in Hangmen (Joan Marcus)

Alice who helps in the pub puts up with Harry and the others and encourages her husband, who she is proud of in a mindless kind of thoughtlessness. But it is obvious that Shirley, who receives the brunt of her parents negative comments because of the age gap and her mopey disposition, is chaffing at the bit to have some adventures. If only someone would give her the opportunity.

The opportunity arises when a rather mysterious, menacing bloke from the south comes into the pub, has a few pints then inquires about lodging. Mooney (Alfie Allen), is the catalyst who propels the action along with Syd, whose deviousness and impulse for revenge sets in motion the sequence of events from which there is no turning. The events are inexorable, especially since Harry’s rival and fellow hangmen Albert (Peter Bradbury when I saw the production), shows up in a coincidental irony and adds to the final debacle.

There is no spoiler alert because so much of the fun of this play is in the twisting plot, incorrect assumptions that McDonagh whimsically leads you to make, and overall uncertainty about which characters are truly malevolent and which ones are actually fronting evil but are almost nice and kind. Beneath this foray into the darkness of human nature, the elements are profound and frightening as the scripture does say that wickedness lurks in the human heart. Naturally, in the culture’s global lexicon, the heart is tender and sweet. Not for McDonagh in the Hangmen, in this entertaining look at machismo, revenge, female complicity, arrogance, pride, lawlessness and fronting.

Alfie Allen, Gaby French in Hangmen (Joan Marcus)

If you enjoy McDonagh and are wanting a laugh or two or many, this is one to see for its wit, cleverness and sardonic finger-pointing at who you really are in your soul. Threlfall’s portrayal of the fascinating character Harry and the solid cast performances shine a light on McDonagh’s themes about human nature. Ironically, in this current time, these themes seem to resonate roundly with Vladimir Putin’s current expose of the misery of his own soul and a want of humor and laughter. Thankfully, McDonagh reminds us of ourselves with brilliant humor which might makes us want to be different for an occasional minute or two.

Directed by Matthew Dunster, who collaborated with Anna Fleischle (scenic and costume designer), about the intriguing two level sets that are quite elaborate with spectacle yet functionality (a cafe, a prison, a darkly paneled, expansive pub), the play succeeds on many levels (sorry, I couldn’t resist). Perhaps there’s a bit of symbolism to think about as you get to watch the pub set rise from hell (as it was referred to in Elizabethan times-the space under the proscenium), as the prison and place where poor Hennessy-whether guilty or innocent was hanged- slowly moves to the second level atop the pub. Thus, the pub becomes the set on the main stage and the prison cell and cafe are above it.

Finally, kudos goes to Joshua Carr’s lighting design and Ian Dickinson for Autograph in sound design.

For tickets and times go to their website:

Sacred Elephant by Heathcote Williams: Stage Adaptation by Geoffrey Hyland and Jeremy Crutchley

Sacred Elephant, currently Off Broadway adapted for the stage by Geoffrey Hyland and Jeremy Crutchley, is created from Heathcote Williams’ magnificent epic poem about nature’s divine design represented through the elephant. Crutchley gives an ethereal and other-worldly performance as The Other, the being of the elephant. The production is currently at La Mama’s First Floor Theatre until September 22. See the review on Blogcritics and on this site.

Below are the expressive photographs of Crutchley in an embodiment of the elephant’s ethos. I included these to enhance the previous review because of an article that appeared in the Huffington Post about a baby elephant who was rejected by its mother. It cried and cried for hours. Its response is heartbreaking…like our response when we were hurt as children and cried in desolation, or as adults who feel hopeless and cry out to God and the universe for solace and comfort. Click here for the article.

The elephant is us. Can we continue to destroy it and not perish ourselves? Elephants are beings like the other creatures on this planet and must be safeguarded and protected. If we do this, we safeguard our own destiny. Williams’ poem is dedicated to this end as is Crutchley’s performance.

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The marvelous Jeremy Crutchly.    Photo by Rob Keith

The following is part of the press release by Jonathan Slaff.

Jeremy Crutchley is well known in South Africa and the U.K., having performed a diverse range of award-winning contemporary and classic roles. He has received many Best Actor National Theatre Awards in South Africa and has appeared with the RSC and in the West End. He was nominated Best Actor in the South African Film & TV Awards for his leading role in “Retribution” (2011), a thriller in the style of Cape Fear. He currently appears with John Cleese as The Glock in the feature films “Spud” and “Spud 2.” In January 2014, he wil be featured in the U.S. TV series “Black Sails” (Starz).

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Jeremy Crutchley in Sacred Elephant. Photo by Rob Keith

Crutchley’s varied and enviable career ranges from classics to solo shows to rock shows. He performed Doug Wright’s international hit, “I Am My Own Wife,” in 2009 to kick off the Grahamstown Theatre Festival and in South Africa’s prestigious 2010 Fleur du Cap Theatre Awards, the show was nominated for six awards and received three, including Best Actor and Best Solo Performance.  Theater critic Peter Tromp (The Next 48 Hours) named the piece as one of the ten most memorable productions in his decade of reviewing. The previous year, Crutchley won Best Actor as Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice” before going on to play Alonso in “The Tempest” at Stratford-Upon-Avon and in that show’s sold-out national tour with the Royal Shakespeare Company. He was a Fleur du Cap Nominee for his performance as Malvolio in “Twelfth Night”, also directed by Geoff Hyland. In 2002-3 at Edinburgh and in the West End, he created the role of Dr. Drabble in the black comedy, “The Dice House” (based on Luke Rheinhardt’s “The Dice Man”). In the UK in the 90’s, he performed at London’s Theatre Royal Windsor and Orange Tree Theatre and appeared in various TV productions for BBC. In the 80’s, he attracted notice for his performances in Sam Shepard’s “Cowboy Mouth” and “Equus,” among others. Also a rock musician, he has written two Rock Theater works and recorded a blues-rock album. When “The Rocky Horror Show” finally hit South Africa in 1992, he played Dr. Frank ‘n’ Furter in the original cast. His recent TV appearances include: “Miss Marple: A Carribbean Mystery”(BBC), “Kidnap And Ransom”(ITV), Martina Cole’s “The Runaway” (Sky TV) and “Women In Love” (BBC).

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Jeremy Crutchley as The Other. Photo by Rob Keith

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Jeremy Crutchley in Sacred Elephant by Heathcote Williams at La Mama First Floor Theatre. Photo by Rob Keith.

Heathcote Williams (author) is a poet, playwright and actor. He is best known for his extended poems on environmental subjects, “Whale Nation” (1988), “Falling for a Dolphin” (1989) and “Autogeddon” (1991). His plays have also won acclaim, notably “AC/DC,” which was produced at London’s Royal Court, and “Hancock’s Last Hour.” He is also a versatile actor whose memorable roles include Prospero in Derek Jarman’s film of “The Tempest.” “Sacred Elephant” was the first environmental poem by Williams, although it was not commercially published until after his better-known work, “Whale Nation” (1988). “Sacred Elephant” actually dates back to 1967, when Williams spent three months touring in India. While in Rajasthan, he observed local elephants and their trainers at close quarters. He also had a close association with a circus elephant named Rani and was able to watch her daily routine and behavior in captivity. Captive behavior, which is largely unknown to the general public, forms a large portion of “Sacred Elephant.”

The poem first appeared in print in 1987, published by Williams himself but in an unusual form. Three thousand copies were issued on elephant-sized paper and with print “large enough for elephants to read.” These newspapers were given away privately to friends and associates. That year, Williams performed the poem as a radio production, receiving many favorable reviews, including one from Harold Pinter who called it “a marvelous poem.” When Williams’ “Whale Nation” was published in 1988, it set a pattern for Williams’ books to follow, including “Sacred Elephant,” which was published commercially by Jonathan Cape a year later. Following this publication, the book received many more favorable notices.

It was recorded as a Naxos audiobook by Williams himself and given recitations, but it had never been explored for its powerful theatrical potential until Geoffrey Hyland and Jeremy Crutchley conceived this production. Heathcote Williams has granted exclusive dramatic rights to Crutchley to perform the work.

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