At the beginning of Martin McDonagh’s “Hangmen,” stout, bow-tied executioner Harry Wade is about to hang an unhappy man – unhappy not just because he’s innocent, but because he’ll be killed by a “rubbish hangman,” rather than the great Albert Pierrepoint.
“I’m just as good as bloody Pierrepoint!” says Harry, who whacks the prisoner with a billyclub to get him to stop grasping for dear life onto the metal frame of the bed in his prison cell. “If you’d’ve just tried to relax you could’ve been dead by now,” Harry’s assistant Syd says, trying to be helpful.
Two years later, in 1965, Harry has been forced to retire, not for any issues in his job performance, such as killing an innocent man, but because Great Britain has banned hanging (and will eventually abolish capital punishment.) Harry the hangman now owns a pub on the outskirts of Oldham in the North of England, where a man enters named Mooney — mysterious, menacing, with a London accent…and an ulterior motive. The tension mounts when we see Mooney smooth-talking Harry’s shy teenage daughter; shortly thereafter, she disappears.
“Hangmen” is Martin McDonagh’s first new play in New York since the misbegotten “A Behanding in Spokane” in 2010 (He’s been busy elsewhere, most recently writing and directing the Oscar-nominated film “Three Billboards in Ebbing, Missouri.”) “Hangmen” is undeniably entertaining. The plot is suspenseful and full of twists. The 12-member cast is stellar, including standouts Mark Addy as the pompous, clueless ex-executioner and Johnny Flynn as the sly, sexy intruder. (Flynn, who originated the role of Mooney in England, and portrayed the lead in “Lovesick,” currently bingeable on Netflix, seems a likely candidate for larger stardom.) McDonagh’s signature sensibility is in good form, with its hip wit in the bad boy tradition of Joe Orton, and some wonderfully daffy scenes among its colorful characters, especially the quartet of barflies. The design team’s impressive attention to details anchors the playwrights playful flights of imagination and manipulation.
There are however several caveats. Some New York theatergoers have complained of the difficulty in making out some of the dialogue through the thick English accents. The plot, as clever in its set-up and surprises as it is, will leave the literal-minded with some nagging questions. And, as with many McDonagh plays, the mordant humor, as funny as much of it is, involves a gleeful reliance on violence bordering on the sadistic.
The violence in “Hangmen” is not graphic (relatively speaking) and one can argue it’s a commentary on the laughable distinction we make between legal and illegal violence. It’s worth noting that Albert Pierrepoint is an actual historical figure, a British hangman responsible for some 400 executions. But nobody will mistake “Hangmen” for a pointed drama like, say, “Dead Man Walking.” It’s meant to make you laugh; I can’t be the only theatergoer who does so while feeling complicit in McDonagh’s stylish cruelty.
Click on any photograph by Ahron R. Foster to see it enlarged.
Written by Martin McDonagh; Directed by Matthew Dunster
Set and costume design by Anna Fleischle, lighting design byJoshua Carr, sound design by Ian Dickinson for Autograph, fight choreographer J. David Brimmer
Cast Mark Addy, Owen Campbell, Billy Carter, Maxwell Caulfield, Johnny Flynn, Gaby French, Gilles Geary, Richard Hollis, John Horton, David Lansbury, Sally Rogers and Reece Shearsmith
Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, including one intermission.
“Hangmen” is scheduled to run through March 25, 2018