The playwright Martin McDonagh achieved enormous success at the turn of the millennium with a series of blackly comic plays about contemporary Irish life, peaking with the unforgettably bleak and hilarious The Lieutenant Of Inishmore. After his more surreal The Pillowman, he has eschewed the British stage to concentrate on film (most notably the magnificent In Bruges, which he also directed), but has now returned with his first play for the Royal Court in well over a decade. The magisterially macabre Hangmen, having the shortest of runs at the Court, is not only a reminder of what an authentically original voice McDonagh has, but a splendidly dark exercise in stylised black comedy that can stand comparison with the best of Joe Orton, which it resembles to an extent.
McDonagh’s protagonist is the bow-tied hangman-turned-publican Harry Wade, splendidly played by David Morrissey as a mixture of puffed-up pomposity and viciousness. Introduced in a memorable opening scene that sets the tone for the mixture of horror and hilarity that defines the rest of the evening, as Harry and his cringing assistant Syd (a game Reece Shearsmith) dispatch a man who pronounces his innocence even as he criticises his executors’ professional ability, Wade has become a publican in Oldham in the 1960s, just after the abolition of hanging. Holding court to a small band of cronies and hangers-on, his equilibrium is disturbed by the arrival of a ‘menacing’ young man from London, Mooney (Johnny Flynn), whose appearance may or may not have something to do with his earlier execution.
There’s a Pinteresque menace to much of the action, particularly in the first half, with Mooney’s endless allusions to ‘my references’ becoming just as much of a trope as the tramp Davies trying to head to Sidcup to retrieve his papers in The Caretaker. However, McDonagh enjoys shocking an audience more than Pinter ever did, and there is an audacity and genuine brio to Matthew Dunster’s excellent production, meaning that many of the moments here (not least a stunning scene-change at the end of the first scene) see dark humour that at least offers equal-opportunities insults to many ethnic and regional groups, before it careers off into McDonagh’s patented laughs-through-violence in the second half. It is spoiling little to reveal that the opening hanging is not the only one that we see in the play.
McDonagh almost wilfully ignores the obvious ‘is capital punishment wrong?’ debate that a viewer might expect, allowing an awesomely impressive guest appearance by the legendary Pierrepont late in the game to serve as a means of belittling Harry rather than offering any sort of perspective on the men who made their living through the execution of others. Perhaps, on final analysis, the play isn’t about anything in particular, but it’s so superbly executed and so funny that it doesn’t matter, especially in the interplay between Morrissey and Shearsmith. I’m deliberately trying to be vague about many of the plot details as this is a play that you’re better off seeing as unaware as possible, but be prepared for some big, black laughs and to emerge into the evening both amused and somewhat chilled.
Hangmen at the Royal Court Theatre, London, until 10th October 2015. For more information and tickets visit the website.