Hangmen, Royal Court Theatre

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I thought of Mark Lawson while watching Hangmen. Mark Lawson, as he made very clear three years ago, is no fan of the scene change. And Hangmen has one of the most drawn-out, deliberate, metamorphic scene changes I’ve witnessed on stage. A big, bold, statement-making scene change.

Martin McDonagh’s new play opens in the dying days of the death penalty. Famed Lancashire hangman Harry and his assistant Syd are just doing another job, getting on with the nine to five. The world, though, is about to change. With the condemned man eventually dispatched, at the end of the first scene Anna Fleischle’s entire detailed prison cell set shudders upwards, slowly disappearing from sight. The hangman’s dangling noose, lit by a single shaft of light, is lifted away.

It’s a stunning transition and a symbolic shift from one age to another. When the lights come up on the Oldham pub run by Harry and his long-suffering wife Alice – just as impressive in its detail – it’s two years later and hanging has just been abolished. Around them, too, the signs of change are creeping in, even if their old-fashioned boozer is still clinging to the past. Rock’n’roll music is everywhere and Harry and Alice’s “mopey” daughter Shirley is a new breed of teenager. The social revolution is on its way.

Before it arrives, though, a spectre from Harry’s body-littered past (233 hangings, he unwisely brags to a local newspaper reporter) is about to return to haunt him and his family. Remember that hanging in the first scene? Well there’s a question mark over the hanged man’s guilt – a question mark that soon marches into Harry’s pub, along with a menacing stranger from the south. Just what is it that this intruder wants, and what has it got to do with the man who died protesting his innocence two years ago?

As expected from McDonagh, Hangmen is a masterclass in plotting, complete with a couple of twists that have the whole audience collectively, audibly gasping. It’s good old-fashioned narrative theatre, full of unexpected turns and vivid dialogue, and brilliantly done in Matthew Dunster’s carefully pitched production. It’s also dark as the pints of Guinness passed over Harry’s bar, full of cruel humour and simmering with the threat of violence. We all know what McDonagh is capable of by now; the grim and grisly never seems far away.

Much of the play’s sinister undertow comes in the form of Johnny Flynn’s Mooney, the peculiar, scruffy-haired stranger who saunters into Harry’s life and Shirley’s affections. David Morrissey is perfectly cast as the reluctantly retired hangman, all no-nonsense bluntness and blokey self-importance, as is the brilliant Reece Shearsmith as Harry’s stuttering and uncertain former assistant Syd. Yet somehow it’s Flynn who stands out, his shifting, swaggering sense of menace as hard to pin down as Mooney’s questionable intentions. Is he a psychopathic serial killer, or just a serial piss-taker?

McDonagh’s a bit of a piss-taker himself, gleefully pastiching British (and particularly Northern) culture of the 1960s and tricking his audience at every turn. And, of course, Hangmen is funny. Very funny. Even if the laughs – prompted by jokes as unapologetically (and sometimes problematically) offensive as you’d expect from McDonagh – sometimes leave the sour aftertaste of a bad pint. This is the unsavoury side of Britishness, suffused with casual racism and misogyny, whose habits and traditions might – like the death penalty itself – be better resigned to the past.

Fifty years on from the abolition of hanging in the UK, Hangmen is not the play to examine the ethical intricacies of the death penalty or the complicated ins and outs of the justice system. It would never want to be. Still, though, between the laughs it shows a nation on the brink of change, as well as the nastiness that can sometimes be wrapped up in nostalgia. The paraphernalia of Harry’s trade might be lifted away, but its ugly traces remain.

Photo: Simon Annand.

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Matthew Dunster

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Originally written for IdeasTap.

Director, playwright and actor Matthew Dunster is best known as the director of Bruntwood Playwriting Competition winner Mogadishu, the National Theatre’s Love the Sinner and The Globe’s Doctor Faustus, and he is currently directing The Maddening Rain (pictured below) at Soho Theatre. He talks to Catherine Love about juggling disciplines and how he fell in love with theatre…

When did you decide you wanted to work in theatre?

I think I knew from the moment I got on stage – I know it sounds a bit romantic. I was always in and out of trouble for one thing or another when I was at school and it actually got quite messy. Then a very clever teacher asked me to be in Kes and I got to play the bully, so I didn’t feel too exposed. I just remember looking down at my foot when I was on stage one night, I was looking down and sort of twisting my foot on the stage, and all the other kids were just stood still. Then I thought, “I’m good at this”. That was it really, that moment. I just wanted to do it because I thought I’d found something that I was good at.

You’re known for acting and writing as well as for directing. Which came first?

I suppose the acting – I trained as an actor – but I’d always written little bits of plays when I was at school and college. Actually, when I was at college I wrote a play and entered it for a competition at Contact Theatre in Manchester. It won and the prize was a professional production, so my first proper gig was as a writer, but I really came out of college as an actor and that was what I pursued.

I try, as much as I can afford to, to go where the most interesting work is. It’s like the three disciplines are runners on a track and different runners are ahead at different times.

How do you think that the three different disciplines feed into one another?

I particularly hope that the experience of directing might make me a better actor. I’m constantly asking my actors to be simple and do less, not to overcomplicate things, so the few times that I’ve acted over the last few years I hope that I’ve simplified my approach to acting.

Do you direct your own plays?

I’ve got a show of mine on at the Almeida which I’m not going to direct, so that’s going to be really interesting for me. I had to get my confidence back as a writer before I felt that I could pass my plays over to other directors. I used to prefer directing my own work, but I think that when you’re writing for yourself you’re a little bit careful. It’s hard to know if you take risks and if you’ve got the objectivity to keep an eye on it and make sure it doesn’t get out of hand. The play I’ve written for the Almeida, Children’s Children, is the biggest and most unwieldy play and certainly the most political play that I’ve written, so it was important that I got somebody else to make sure it’s guided home safely.

Your latest show, The Maddening Rain, comments on the recent banking crisis. How important do you think it is for theatre to respond to current events?

I don’t think it’s crucial, but I think that it always happens. Whenever you’re working on a play, you always feel there’s something in it that reflects what’s going on in our current world. But there’s an added value with this play in that it sets out to take on a subject that is right at the forefront of all our discussions at the moment.

Do you have any tips for aspiring directors, actors and writers?

I would just say do all three and be a doer. Try to find a way of making sure you’re always doing, because a lot of writers, actors and directors spend the majority of their time in a state of unemployment. It’s so hard to crack it, but the only way to get good is to just keep doing it.