Gaiety Theatre, Dublin
Martin McDonagh’s disdain for the medium in which he made his name is well known. While promoting The Leenane Trilogy in the mid-1990s, he called theatre “boring” and “rubbish”. On the interview circuit in 2015, he called it “the worst of all art forms”. It is mildly infuriating, then, to rediscover just how good a playwright McDonagh can be. In its premiere Irish production this week, his 2015 play Hangmen reveals itself as a taut theatrical thriller that leaves aside the tired tropes of his early Oirish comedies for a deeper psychological study of guilt and grief, and a convincing debate about the ethics of the death penalty.
The play opens in a prison cell, as a group of officers prepare a condemned man for his execution. They almost bungle the job, but the man’s fate is the same: death by hanging. Several months later, former hangman Harry (Denis Conway) is pulling pints in an Oldham pub: the death penalty has been abolished and the only thing that swings now is the door through which a menacing stranger (Cillian Scott) arrives, looking for a room. When a journalist (Jonice Elmore) shows up to interview Harry about his former job, Harry’s wife, Alice (Aisling O’Sullivan) and daughter Shirley (a brilliant Olivia Byrne) step in behind the counter while Harry goes upstairs to sell his story. Over the next 24 hours of the drama’s unfolding, there is a slow heightening of tension and a drip-feed of clues. Something bad is going to happen. We think we can predict it, but McDonagh is determined to surprise.
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Director Andrew Flynn guides an impressive ensemble through the unsettling scenes. As the bar regulars, Joe Hanley, Anthony Morris and Daniel Reardon add a brilliantly balanced comic chorus that punctures the tension, as does O’Sullivan in her interactions with Shirley, although in Shirley’s absence O’Sullivan also reveals a deeply felt ache of love and regret. As the stuttering Syd, Robbie O’Connor elevates the stock role of ‘messenger’ to something more important. It is Conway and Scott, however, who must carry the show, and if Scott fails to really terrify us as Mooney, it is because Conway’s Harry – so pompous, so fatuous, so quick to anger – seems to be the more dangerous of the pair.
Ciaran Bagnall’s set design offers an elevated cell that facilitates the shocking opening scene and a convincing period pub interior for the main dramatic narrative, including a cleverly used nook that provides a proscenium frame for the climactic scene, which doesn’t unfold quite as you expect it.
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For Irish audiences unconvinced by the paddywhackery of McDonagh’s earlier plays and most recent successes (see the Banshees of Inisherin), Hangmen is proof that when you strip away the blarney and bluster, McDonagh knows how to tell a good story on the stage.
Runs until April 8th in the Gaiety Theatre