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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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: https://hangmenbroadway.com/