Hangmen by Martin McDonagh. Image Pat Redmond
Hangmen, first produced in 2015, generated much talk of a theatrical return to form for Martin McDonagh. Along with rumours of McDonagh abandoning his love affair with Ireland to embrace the Anglicised universe. While claims of a theatrical return to form proved on point, abandoning his Irish influences proved way wide of the mark. Granted, Hangmen centres on the occupants of a Northern English pub during the seedy Sixties, at a time when capital punishment was being outlawed. Even so Hangmen could not be more Irish. Receiving its Irish premiere, Hangmen proves a sumptuous, deceptive treat in which everything is happening while nothing seems to be happening. Wrapped up perfectly in a stunningly rich production, and an exquisite, top notch ensemble.
Olivia Byrne and Killian Scott in Hangmen by Martin McDonagh. Image Pat Redmond
If McDonagh’s Connemara plays were influenced by Synge, here Tom Murphy and John B. Keane are writ large. Bragging, broken men, fuelled by alcohol and bluster, evoke Murphy’s Conversations on a Homecoming and A Whistle in the Dark. Narratively, John B. Keane’s The Field provides something of a loose framework. Denis Conway’s bar owner Harry, a former hangman for Queen and country, resembles a bellicose, braying Bull McCabe. Robbie O’Connor’s simpering Syd evoking the Bull’s son Tadgh, made to look less of a man in the Bull’s shadow. Then there's Joe Hanley’s Bird-like Bill, part alcoholic, part village idiot. As are the rest of the hanger-ons who hold court in Harry’s castle: Gary Lydon’s cautious Inspector Fry, Joncie Elmore’s newspaper man Clegg, Daniel Reardon’s near deaf Arthur and Anthony Morris’s ever patient Charlie offering him endless playback. McDonagh serving up a smart subversion of English exceptionalism by conflating it with masculinity, full of anti-gay, anti-female, hate the Germans rhetoric. A world where women know their roles as lovely, lachrymose objects of lust. Glamorous mothers, like Aisling O’Sullivan’s Alice, encourage their frumpy daughters to be trophy wives, not moody, mopey victims like Olivia Byrne’s self-willed Shirley. No man wants that. Men lock women away for that. Men for whom banter is bluster. Little more than boys. The pub their playground. Where taunts and jokes normalise their suspect power.
Denis Conway in Hangmen by Martin McDonagh. Image Pat Redmond
With the arrival of Killian Scott’s pretty city boy Mooney, an outsider women fancy and who fancies himself, events take a turn as a young girl goes missing. Opening old wounds about murderer Hennessy, (Stephen O’Leary) the last man hanged by Harry and Syd who went to his death protesting his innocence. All of which disguises the real wound: injured male pride. Yet even if the world shifts from being hung yesterday to being alive tomorrow for committing the same crime, men know how to protect and avenge their women. Ensuring that if someone steps out of line, he’ll soon be put back in his place.
Daniel Reardon and Anthony Morris in Hangmen by Martin McDonagh. Image Pat Redmond
Throughout, the rules of masculinity are self-evidently clear: hold your own counsel, never speak of another man’s penis, half pints and Baby Cham are for women or ponces, or men who stammer or take undue care about how they look. Drink, which flows copiously, allows men say things they can’t normally say, giving them an out because of the drink. As does humour, coating casual racism and mysogyony; sure weren’t they only joking. When it comes to what the loudest has to say, repeat, repeat, repeat, and ridicule all opposition. Until the real men arrive to challenge a slight. Peter Gowen’s historic hangman, Pierrepoint, chastising little boys playing at being men. Because all that matters is what other men think of you. Always it’s about respect. Women’s opinions don’t count. Men are Nietzschean Supermen and should be respected as such. Especially if they’re from the north of England and a servant of the Crown.
Joe Hanley in Hangmen by Martin McDonagh. Image Pat Redmond
If richly evocative of a time recent enough to be both history and nostalgia, Ciaran Bagnall’s set and lights brilliantly capture the era, suggesting the twilight elegance of a fading ideology. Sinead Cuthbert’s costumes equally evocative, looking as if the Krays might turn up at any moment. Each cleverly evoking the seedy world of seedy men captured beautifully in McDonagh’s taut writing. If narratively weak, with the ending mirroring another McDonagh play (no spoilers), story isn’t really the point. Hangmen being more a vehicle to hang crucial points on. Points beautifully made courtesy of some fine direction by Andrew Flynn, and an excellent ensemble at the top of their game.
Aisling O'Sullivan in Hangmen by Martin McDonagh. Image Pat Redmond
For some, Hangmen should come with a moral health warning. For others, McDonagh is giving us moral object lessons without battering us over the head or steering clear of the uncomfortable. A play where nothing happens yet every exchange is vital, where violence, alcohol and humour ensure men are men and women are victims. If the final image suggests a mutual approval society, the death knell heard sounding is not for capital punishment so much as patriarchal masculinity. The women may have finished speaking, but they have had the last word. McDonagh echoing yet another Irish play and playwright; Sean O’Casey and Juno and the Paycock. “What can God do agen the stupidity of men?” McDonagh suggesting an answer in his defiant women. Their tipping point reached. The topple inevitable. It is the Sixties after all. Sheer simplicity. Sheer genius. An unadulterated delight. Hangmen is a brilliant piece of theatre.
Hangmen by Martin McDonagh, presented by Gaiety Productions in association with Decadent Theatre Company, runs at The Gaiety Theatre until April 8, transferring to Black Box, Galway, April 11 to 15.