The first London playwright since Shakespeare to have four plays on in the West End is back
The Royal Court’s new play Hangmen marks the return to the London stage after a twelve year break of Theatreland’s one time wunderkind, Martin Mc- Donagh, who, at 27 was the first playwright since Shakespeare to have four plays running simultaneously in the West End.
It tells the story of Britain’s (fictional) second best-known executioner on the day in 1965 that the British government announces it is abolishing capital punishment. The Royal Court’s artistic director Vicky Featherstone, who grabbed the play – written last year – as soon as it was offered, said of it: “It is a fantastic piece of writing, in typical Martin McDonagh fashion.
It is dark and surreal and shocking and challenging and it is amazing to have a play from him after ten years.” “By the end of the first scene, I was like, this is absolute Martin McDonagh on absolutely top form, and it was very thrilling…a brilliantly negative picture of England,” she has said. McDonagh’s first three plays, The Beauty Queen of Leenane, A Skull in Connemara and The Lonesome West, all played at the Royal Court in the late 1990s.
The Cripple of Inishmaan was revived in London and New York in 2013 and 2014 starring Daniel (Harry Potter) Radcliffe and The Pillowman premiered at the National theatre in 2003.
In 2001, he made headlines when he fell out with the National Theatre’s Trevor Nunn for refusing to stage The Lieutenant of Inishmore, which mocked IRA extremism in scenes that included a man having his toenails pulled out, several blindings, a corpse being chopped up and a cat being painted. McDonagh criticised Nunn’s vanity in thinking the play might threaten the Northern Ireland peace process. He also criticised other theatre producers for thinking they would be targeted by terrorists for staging his satire.
This time he has switched his focus to the north of England in the 1960s, but very definitely not the Swinging 60s, and to an Oldham pub for the story of Harry Wade, a fictional character (an amalgam of two actual English hangmen Harry Bernard Allen and Stephen Wade) described as Britain’s second bestknown hangman after the actual, real-life Albert Pierrepoint.
A mysterious young stranger, Mooney (played by Johnny Flynn), arrives, there’s strobe lighting, seedy characters and it all builds up to a grisly big finish. McDonagh has described it as a “traditional comedy thriller” albeit with moments of dreadful cruelty and elaborate violence and a Pinter-esque sense of menace.
He told The Guardian: “There was certainly that tension in England in the early to mid-1960s. You had the Beatles coming up and, at the same time, there was still this Victorian practice of executing people – and sometimes innocent people. I wanted to explore that tension. Is it right to kill someone who is an evil man – or not, as the case may be – and what does that make the person who has to do it? Can they distance themselves from what they are doing? Is it nothing to do with them? And does it affect them?”
He also says he wanted to explore the nature of England at a time when it was still recovering from the aftershocks of World War II and hopes the audience comes away unnerved. “Even though it’s set in 1963 and ’65, it’s definitely not The Beatles.”
David Morrissey, who plays Harry Wade, said before the play’s opening: “I would have killed most of Equity to get the part.” He singled out McDonagh’s love of language, dialogue and speech patterns: “(It’s) his love of language. You’re reading the script through with other actors and there’s immediately this incredible rhythm, like you’re batting words back and forth.
That’s energising in itself, and then you start to pick up on the complexity of the script, all the underlying strands that are threaded through the play in such a subtle, revealing way.”
The idea about an executioner came to Mc Donagh around the time he was trying to stage The Lieutenant of Inishmore, he has said, but he did work on it properly until last autumn when he decided to move the setting from London to the North of England. “Once I kind of got the north of England accent in my head it kind of poured out like the Irish ones used to.”
It was “getting back to that slightly odd, heightened dialogue style and characters who just take the play to whichever place they want to take it…a working-class thing that’s a joy to get back into” with Northern English speech similar in many ways to the early Irish dialects he wrote. McDonagh is selfaware enough to acknowledge irritation from some quarters in Ireland that he, with dual British Irish nationality, is hailed for his use of west of Ireland idioms, speech and humour and for taking the mickey out of some traditional sacred cows. “I think there’s still an undertow of that in Ireland: ‘Who the f**k is this English guy criticising us?’
They find it hard to take from someone who doesn’t actually live there. A lot of Irish journalists and commentators haven’t quite gotten to grips with the diaspora, that we can be as critical as people who live there,” he said. McDonagh wrote his plays in his 20s, as a young London Irishman who had grown up in south London with the duality of having spent formative childhood summers in the west of Ireland and the streetwise reality of working class Camberwell, is now 45. Like so many saw the Celtic Tiger with the detachment of a child of emigrants.
Asked if he thought the collapse of the Celtic Tiger had changed Ireland he was emphatic in his response: “Oh Christ, unbelievably so. I remember people over there saying to me, ‘Why aren’t you writing about the new Ireland and the Celtic Tiger and how fantastic it all is now?’
Well, because it was a phoney pile of bullshit.”