Death-penalty drama 'Hangmen' blends humor and menace
Dec. 09, 2015
LONDON (AP) — London's new stage hit, "Hangmen," is a work of gallows humor. Literally.
Martin McDonagh's ferocious comedy centers on an executioner facing forced retirement as Britain abolishes capital punishment.
It's set in the early-to-mid 1960s, the era of British Invasion bands, miniskirts and Swinging London. But the only swinging going on in McDonagh's macabre world is at the end of a rope.
McDonagh, a Londoner with Irish roots who wrote and directed the screen tragicomedy "In Bruges," says he wanted to "explore that grim period of British life where they were still hanging people at the same time that The Beatles were appearing and Elvis was on the radio."
"Hangmen" is set in a prison and a pub — a world of "grim, working-class male ugliness," the playwright said, at odds with the decade's hip reputation.
"If you were in the Rolling Stones, yeah, probably the 60s were great," a cheery McDonagh said after the play's opening night this week. "But if you were a common Joe or Jill working in a factory, I doubt the 60s were that swinging."
The play, which ran at London's 370-seat Royal Court Theatre in September and opened this week at the larger Wyndham's Theatre, stars David Morrissey (a versatile actor known to zombie fans as the fearsome Governor on TV drama "The Walking Dead") as Harry Wade, a bluff, broad-shouldered northerner certain of the rightness of his work.
He banishes doubts about the guilt of some of the prisoners he has hanged, and dismisses alternative methods of execution including the electric chair ("Yank claptrap") and the guillotine ("messy — and French").
But after a series of infamous cases, public opinion is turning. The play refers to controversial real-life executions including that of Ruth Ellis, hanged in 1955 for murdering her abusive lover.
The death penalty is being abolished and Harry is running a pub in a northern England town where his job has made him a macabre minor celebrity. He's visited by Peter Mooney (star-in-the-making Johnny Flynn), a disruptive southern dandy with mysterious and possibly sinister intentions, who embodies the charm, danger and menace of changing times.
McDonagh said Mooney is "a kind of Rolling Stones type, but a creepy, (messed)-up Rolling Stones type."
Part farce, part thriller, part dissection of society and its hypocrisies, "Hangmen" has echoes of the 1960s plays of Joe Orton and Harold Pinter, who brought a new energy, irreverence and violence onto the British stage.
McDonagh, 45, made his name with plays including "The Lieutenant of Inishmore" and "The Pillowman" before moving into film as writer-director of "In Bruges" and "Seven Psychopaths."
Like those works, "Hangmen" — McDonagh's first new play in London for more than a decade — creates a world in which violence is both terrible and ridiculous.
Humor and menace make for a delicate balance, executed with precision by the cast under director Matthew Dunster.
"It's absurdist humor," said Morrissey, who makes Wade both threatening and vulnerable. "But if you played it for laughs it would kill it. I tend to play the menace and then the laughs come.
"What's absurd is the truth — the truth that you combat people who have committed murder by murdering them."
Morrissey says he finds capital punishment "abhorrent," and "Hangmen" invites theatergoers to agree, although McDonagh says he didn't set out to write a message play.
"But I do have my opinions about it and I kind of knew it would bubble up if I wrote something about it," he said.
McDonagh has had past success in New York — most recently last year with a production of his play "The Cripple of Inishmaan" starring Daniel Radcliffe.
"Hangmen," which runs in London until March 5, has received enthusiastic reviews, and it's a good bet it will head for New York before too long.
McDonagh relishes the idea of showing the play to audiences in a country where state-sanctioned executions still occur.
"I can't wait," he said. "I can't wait to have that debate."