Gallows humor is usually comedy about death and dying, particularly in the face of the joker’s own imminent mortality. Martin McDonagh’s Hangmen takes the term ‘gallows humor’ literally. The subject of Hangmen, after all, is . . . well, hangmen. That is to say, executioners (not so Lord High, either, to be sure). Though the subject is deadly (yep, I went there!) serious, Hangmen is quite funny—though sometimes I had to catch myself and wonder if it really ought to be funny. I assume other spectators had the same sensation. (Diana, the friend with whom I often go to theater, once turned to me and asked, “Why are people laughing?” I told her simply, ”Because it’s funny.” I’m not certain because of the darkness, but I’d say she reacted quizzically. “Is it?” she said—as if she didn’t believe me.)
Given that the playwright is McDonagh, there are lots of jokes and (dark) humor. When, for instance, a prisoner is about to be led to his execution but, protesting his innocence, he’s holding onto his bed and struggling mightily not to go, the assistant hangman tells him, “If you’d’ve just tried to relax, you could’ve been dead by now.” And when the condemned man wails, “I’m getting hung by nincompoops!” the official corrects him: “‘Hanged.’ . . . You’re getting ‘hanged’ by nincompoops.” The prisoner ripostes, “I’ve heard it all now. Correcting me English at a time like this!” (This diction error is a gag that runs through the play.)
The New York première of Hangmen at the Atlantic Theater Company is a visiting presentation of the Royal Court Theatre in London where it opened on 10 September 2015 and ran until 10 October; The production transferred to Wyndham’s Theatre in the West End where it opened on 7 December 2015 and ran until 5 March 2016. The first new London play of McDonagh’s since 2003’s The Pillowman at the Royal National Theatre won two 2016 Laurence Olivier Awards (Best New Play and Best Set Design for Anna Fleischle) and was nominated for Best Director (Matthew Dunster). The production also received Best New Play and Best Designer honors at the 2015 Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards and the Best Design nod at the 2015 Evening Standard Theatre Awards. Hangmen also received a National Theatre Live broadcast on 3 March 2016 and was published by Faber and Faber on 17 September 2015. (National Theatre Live is a 2009 program of the Royal National of live broadcasts via satellite of performances of the company’s productions—and those of other theaters; the first Broadway production was transmitted in 2014—to cinemas and arts centers around the world.)
The Atlantic Theater Company production, with many of the casts from the Royal Court and the West End, began previews at ATC’s Linda Gross Theater in Chelsea on 17 January 2018 and opened on 5 February; the production is now scheduled to close on 25 March (having been extended from 4 March first through the 7th and again for the final time the week before last). I walked over to West 20th Street and met Diana for the 8 p.m. performance on Friday, 23 February. The New York and U.S. première of Hangmen is McDonagh’s first since the brief, poorly received Broadway run of A Behanding in Spokane in 2010.
Like the London stagings, ATC’s Hangmen was directed by Matthew Dunster and mounted by the London design team. Several members of the Royal Court cast have also traveled to New York City to reprise their roles here, including Johnny Flynn (Mooney), Sally Rogers (Alice), and Reece Shearsmith (Syd); others appeared in the West End production and still others are either American actors or U.S. based and joined the cast at ATC. Dunster, with the aid of dialect coach Stephen Gabis, blended them all excellently on an ensemble (about which I’ll have more to say shortly.
I’ve only seen one McDonagh play before, The Cripple of Inishmaan, and that was back in March 1998 (the U.S. première at the Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival’s Newman Theater). Born of Irish parentage in London in 1970 (he turns 48 later this month), Martin Faranan McDonagh’s been on the radar since 1996, making his stage début with The Beauty Queen of Leenane, the first in a trilogy of plays (including A Skull in Connemara and The Lonesome West, both 1997) set in County Galway in Ireland. (Leenane’s New York production was nominated for a Tony as Best Play and won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play.) His next three plays were set in the Aran Islands: The Cripple of Inishmaan (1997), The Lieutenant of Inishmore (2001) and the unproduced and unpublished The Banshees of Inisheer (written, like all the six plays, in 1994—though McDonagh says Banshees “isn’t any good”). The playwright and his older brother, John Michael McDonagh, a writer and director, continue to live in London after their parents moved back to Galway, where they’d spent their childhood holidays; they both hold dual Irish and British nationality.
McDonagh’s The Pillowman (1995) is set not in Ireland but in a fictional totalitarian state and premièred at the National in 2003 and then came to Broadway in 2005. It won the best play Olivier in London and the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best New Foreign Play. A Behanding in Spokane is McDonagh’s first play set in the United States. McDonagh’s also composed radio plays and is the screenwriter of three films: In Bruges (2008), Seven Psychopaths (2012), Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017 – nominated for Academy Awards for both Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture; the awards are to be announced tonight, 4 March). In Bruges, nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 2009, is the only one of these that I’ve seen and I didn’t care for it much.
The playwright is known for his dark and bloody plays larded with black humor—though there’s less actual blood spilled in Hangmen than in his Galway and Aran trilogies, I’d say—but only because hanging doesn’t shed any blood as a rule. I’m not sure how much of a distinction that is, though. The main practitioner of the titular profession says that hanging is a dignified way to die—as far as executions go. I doubt the audience saw it that way, gauging from their vocal reactions to the two hangings that happen on stage. Diana positively flinched next to me, letting out a series of little shrieks. Less physical forms of threats and menace, along the lines of the Pinteresque—in spite of the humor—are also part of Hangmen’s dramaturgy.
His plays (and his screenplays) are often generated by a character who tells a story in exaggerated detail—and storytelling is a frequent basis for many scenes. (Therefore, pubs and bars are favorite settings for McDonagh’s scripts, or some other site where people tend to sit around and drink and spin yarns.) One of the initiators of the “In-Your-Face” theater movement in the U.K., whose aim was to put controversial and even shocking material on stage (I think hangings qualify, don’t you?), his characters are loose with political correctness, especially with respect to race or national origin. (In Hangmen, where the main setting is a pub, there’s considerable banter about “southerners”—people from London and the south of England—and several comments about “blacks.”) Disrespect for women and girls, as well as body-shaming occurs frequently—as does profanity and vulgar language.
London’s Royal Court Theatre, a non-commercial West End theater that equates somewhat like one of our more substantial Off-Broadway companies here in New York City, was acquired in 1956 by the English Stage Company and, still under its operation, has gained a reputation for contributing significantly to the English-speaking modern theater. (There is something of a profile of ATC in “Cloud Nine,” posted on Rick On Theater on 26 October 2015.) Opened near Sloane Square in Chelsea as the New Chelsea Theatre in a converted chapel in 1870; it was renamed the Court Theatre the next year. The home of early plays of W. S. (William Schwenck) Gilbert (later of Gilbert and Sullivan fame), the building went through numerous managers and several alterations before closing in 1887, when it was demolished.
A new building was constructed nearby on Sloane Square and opened as the New Court Theatre in 1888. It also went through a succession of managers, and by the end of the 19th century, the theater was called the Royal Court Theatre. For the first few years of the 20th century, actor, director, playwright, and critic Harley Granville-Barker managed the Royal Court and the plays of George Bernard Shaw were produced there for some years. In 1932, the building stopped being used as a playhouse, but from 1935 to 1940 it operated as a movie theater until damage during World War II forced it to close once again.
In 1952, the building reopened as a theater after reconstruction. In 1956, the English Stage Company occupied the theater emphasizing new British plays but also producing classics and new foreign works. The ESC’s goal was to create a playwright’s theater to promote new writers and works for the stage. In its first season, for instance, the Royal Court presented John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, which put the original “angry young man” on the post-war British stage and launched a new kind of contemporary drama spotlighting the anti-hero. (The next year, ESC staged Osborne’s The Entertainer starring Laurence Olivier as Archie Rice, another ground-breaking production.)
Following Osborne, the ESC brought to its stage such tradition-shattering writers as Edward Bond (Saved, 1965), Caryl Churchill (Owners, 1972; Drunk Enough to Say I Love You?, 2006; Seven Jewish Children, 2009), Timberlake Wertenbaker (Our Country’s Good, 1988), Ariel Dorfman (Death and the Maiden, 1991), Jez Butterworth (Mojo, 1995; Jerusalem, 2009; The Ferryman, 2017), Conor McPherson (The Weir, 1997), and many other dramatists on a list of startling, experimental, and controversial theater art that’s too long to reproduce here. In the mid-1960s, over issues of censorship, the Royal Court became a private club (in a move similar to Ellen Stewart’s tactic in the same era when she turned the La MaMa Café into the La MaMa Experimental Theater Club). That way, the ESC avoided the requirement of getting the Lord Chamberlain to license their productions. Two Royal Court productions, Bond’s Saved and Osborne’s A Patriot for Me (both 1965), were largely responsible for abolishing theater censorship in Britain with the passage of the Theatres Act of 1968.
Artistic director William Gaskill, the company’s second after co-founder George Devine, launched the Young People’s Theatre in 1965 to develop and produce writing by young people under 25 from all sections of British society (it morphed into the Young Writers Programme in 1998 under artistic director Stephen Daldry). In 1969, the ESC opened the small Theatre Upstairs (63 seats) where the company staged its most experimental productions (many of which later moved to the larger Theatre Downstairs (400 seats). The Rocky Horror Show, with music, lyrics and book by Richard O'Brien, premièred there in 1973; so did Athol Fugard’s 1973 Sizwe Banzi Is Dead, Jim Cartwright’s Road (1986), and Harold Pinter’s 2006 performance in Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape.
Faced with serious deterioration and in need of technical up-dating, the theater was in danger of closing once again in 1995. With several public grants, the Royal Court Theatre underwent a £16.2 million reconstruction in 1996 (about $4.09 million today), preserving only the building’s beloved façade and the auditorium of the main house, reopening in 2000. (The company continued to produce in other spaces during the interim.) The current artistic director of the Royal Court Theatre since April 2013 is Vicky Featherstone, its first female leader (and the 11th over six decades), who was previously the founding head of the National Theatre of Scotland.
Hangmen, which runs two hours and a quarter (with one intermission) at ATC, takes place in Lancashire, England (200 miles northwest of London), in the early and mid-1960s; the first scene is 1963 (a slide says so) when executions, apparently still carried out by hanging in Britain, were still legal. A man named James Hennessy (Gilles Geary), declaring his innocence to the last, is hanged in the first scene, set in a cell of the local prison, and the hangman, Harry Wade (Mark Addy), spiffed up in a jaunty bow tie, brushes off the man’s protestations. “That’s nowt to do with me,” he declares, and carries out his duty—angry only that the guards, the doctor, and Syd Armfield (Reece Shearsmith), the assistant executioner, didn’t do their jobs efficiently. When the deed’s finally done and the prison doctor has pronounced Hennessy “Quite dead,” Harry announces, rubbing his hands together, “Now where’s our bloody breakfast? I, for one, am fucking starved.”
When the next scene opens, the setting has shifted to two years later, on the day the death penalty was abolished in England (9 November 1965, by passage of The Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act 1965), to a pub which is Harry’s home, with his wife, Alice (Sally Rogers), and his fifteen-year-old daughter, Shirley (Gaby French), and sole livelihood. (The naturalistic sets are by Anna Fleischle and lit by Joshua Carr.) It’s also the haunt of a passel of barflies (Bill – Richard Hollis; Charlie – Billy Carter; Arthur – John Horton) which includes a police inspector, George Fry (David Lansbury)—the hangman’s groupies. (At one point, when Harry’s stepped out of the pub, dotty old Arthur says, “I don’t know whether to wait for the hangman to come back or to go. I only came for t’ hangman.”)
It wouldn’t be fair to anyone who plans to see Hangmen later to give away too much of the plot; I may have said too much already; I’m not sure that reviewers who even revealed the ending of the play aren’t overstepping. Diana hadn’t read a review, but I’d read the New York Times and when the last event came, she gasped in shock, but I was waiting for it all through the final scene. I will also say that some of what McDonagh has written is intentionally ambiguous, so my interpretations would be misleading, and some of it is just obscure, or confusing, so my descriptions might just be wrong. I’ll acquiesce to do a little précis, however.
Harry was the second-best hangman in England and the rival, at least in his own mind, of Albert Pierrepoint (Maxwell Caulfield), who has the rep as the best hangman in the country. On the day hanging has been abolished, a local reporter, Clegg (Owen Campbell), has come to the pub to get a quotation from Harry about the momentous change. A stranger named Peter Mooney (Johnny Flynn) also shows up at the pub and puts everyone else on edge by toying with Harry and flirting with teenaged Shirley. (In the London Evening Standard, Fiona Mountford aptly described Mooney as “like a character from a Pinter play but funnier,” and Bryan Appleyard, in London’s Sunday Times, characterized the character as “the love child of Harold Pinter and Joe Orton.”) He also makes overtures of renting a room above the pub from Alice. When their daughter goes missing one morning, Harry and Alice, as well as the denizens of the pub, believe Mooney’s kidnapped and killed her. (In a scene with Syd, with whom he’s in cahoots, Mooney as much as admits he’s holding Shirley—or is he lying?) Making broad hints that he may have been the perpetrator of the gruesome murder for which Hennessy was hanged, Mooney’s actions and enigmatic statements make everyone uneasy and precipitate the play’s climax, leaving Harry to justify his former profession.
Ben Brantley of the Times asserted that the play’s about “the uses and abuses of vengeance,” but it’s not clear to me that McDonagh is being that straightforward. (Brantley invokes McDonagh’s current, Oscar-nominated Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri as evidence that vengeance is “much on McDonagh’s mind” these days, but I haven’t seen the flick yet so I can’t comment.) It took me several days to figure out what I think Hangmen's about. (That happens to me often enough with complex plays; I have to cogitate over it for a while.)
Diana, on the other hand, pretty much dismissed the play by intermission. I think, if a play isn’t immediately clear about its point at first viewing, Diana dismisses it; I think it’s the same with other kinds of art—like Jackson Pollock’s paintings (see “Jackson Pollock: A Collection Survey: 1924-1954 (MoMA),” 2 October 2017). As for me, I found the play intriguing (the production goes without further qualification, I think) and worth thinking about and trying to figure out. I was immediately sure of one thing: Hangmen isn’t dismissable. McDonagh is up to something, as Aaron Frankel, one of my acting teachers, used to say about actors who are really working on something. I felt, to be sure, that execution is the playwright’s metaphor for something more universal and less linked to a 50-year-old historical situation.
Other analysts have said that Hangmen presents “a devastating vision of guilt, betrayal and flawed masculinity” (Henry Hitchings, Evening Standard) or is “about the abolition of the death penalty and the impact of violence on its perpetrators” (Fiona Mountford, Evening Standard). I think both of these are overly simplistic and literal. Why dredge up an issue so long settled and dead? No, I think McDonagh’s on about something more relevant, pertinent, and contemporary.
There are several conflicts depicted in Hangmen, at the center of which in all cases is Harry. There’s Harry versus Pierrepoint, Harry versus Syd, Harry versus Inspector Fry, Harry and Alice versus Shirley, Harry versus Clegg. But the conflict that fuels the play is Harry versus Mooney. The moment that Mooney walks into the pub, Harry makes it clear he doesn’t like or trust the Londoner. He’s all wrong, not just for the bar, but for the town, for the north. His clothes are too flashy, his hair’s too long and shaggy, his accent’s not right. Mooney likes to say he’s “vaguely menacing,” but try as he might, he comes off as “creepy.” His very presence generates upheaval; he’s the Joe Btfsplk of disruption.
Harry, on the other hand, calls himself “a servant of the Crown,” a good soldier in the service of the empire. Authority is its own justification. “The government—his government—is something that he doesn’t need to question or interpret . . .” is how Hilton Als put it in the New Yorker. When the court says a man’s guilty and must be hanged, there’s no question to be asked. It’s "nowt to do with me,” Harry insists. Confronted with the suggestion that he may have participated in a miscarriage of justice, Harry shrugs off the possibility—and the responsibility: “And maybe we’ll never know. Boo hoo. Another pint, lad?”
The clash is between Harry’s “need for empire,” as Als had it, his need for order and authority versus Mooney’s disruptive and destructive force (as embodied in the British youth of the 1960s: Mooney in his Chelsea boots, pegged trousers, mop-top hair, and long sideburns, is decidedly mod) shows the dangers of relying on power and authority without a sense of justice and humanity. This is a conflict that’s current to the 2010s—we have it going on here as well. Hanging stands for the irreversible consequence of “might makes right.” In McDonagh-land, however, the outcome of the conflict is not an encouraging one.
I’ve already intimated that part of McDonagh’s dramaturgy is Pinteresqueness. (I really like Bryan Appleyard’s description of Mooney as the offspring of Pinter and Orton—Hangmen as a whole has that quality, too.). Like the look of his play, his writing is naturalistic, liberally sprinkled with vulgarities and, at least for an American’s ear, crafted in heavy dialect. His characters’ language can come fast, especially once they get a head of steam up, and combined with the Lancashire dialect, it can be hard to catch the words as they whizz by. Add drink, and comprehension can be a real challenge!
But the atmosphere the dramatist creates through the characterizations and the dialogue is palpable. I’ve never been to the northern part of England, but I can imagine and it sure felt that we were back in 1965 in a working-class pub in a small Lancashire town. This successful limning of a time and place, not to mention the people who inhabit it, may account for something McDonagh does that I’ve seldom seen accomplished (and which I can’t off-hand recall seeing any time recently). He gets well into the diffuse first act without ever revealing—at least to me—where he’s headed. He lets it show at the last moment of act one (and not very substantially—you could miss it), but then hooks into it in act two. Usually a play that doesn’t seem to be leading somewhere in act one falls further apart in act two—it’s a bad omen and virtually impossible to recover from. Of course, part of the Pinter-like dramaturgy are the hints, laid out like breadcrumbs, that the playwright’s “up to something,” even if we don’t know what it is.
As for the acting at ATC, I predict that Hangmen will receive OBIE and Lortel nominations for ensemble cast—and should probably win them. Brantley praised the acting in the Times, and despite that northern accent, it’s excellent all around. There are several Americans in the cast (among them, David Lansbury, a nephew of Angela), and I couldn’t tell them from the Brits from the Royal Court and West End casts who came over with the production. (ATC dialect coach Gabis has done an excellent job, especially with the American cast members.) I think it’s due in large part to the establishment of this stage ensemble, this tightly interwoven community of personalities, that Flynn’s Mooney is such a threat: he’s a virus and the antibodies come together to defend against him and expel him. Either the virus won’t survive, or the organism won’t.
Although the cast is an ensemble, the roles of Mooney and Harry are prominent. Carter, Hollis, and Horton’s barflies (pubflies? Is that a thing?), as well as Lansbury’s Inspector Fry, are excellent at carving out individual characters with distinct personalities; so are Rogers’s Alice and French’s Shirley. French (who’s actually Welsh, by the way) paints a note-perfect portrait of a mid-adolescent who’s even younger than her years, subliming between moody (or “mopey” as her parents would say) and sullen and back. As Syd (whom Terry Teachout described as “Uriah-Heepish” in the Wall Street Journal), who lost his job as assistant hangman for making inappropriate remarks about the size of an executed gangster’s genitalia, Shearsmith is squirrelly and needy, and Geary’s brief but salient turn as the condemned Hennessy is both terrifying and hilarious at the same time (figure that out!), a tribute as much to McDonagh’s writing as to Geary’s acting.
I have to say a word about Maxwell Caulfield, whom I haven’t seen on stage since April 1985, almost 33 years ago, in Louise Page’s Salonika (at the Public’s Anspacher Theater): I didn’t recognize him. Even after I saw that he was playing Pierrepoint, I couldn’t make myself see the hot young guy (at 25) who’d been burning up the stages (and reviews) of New York City since his stunning performance in Orton’s Entertaining Mr. Sloan (1981, Cherry Lane Theatre) as the handsome, older gentleman (now 58). He’s effective in his one climactic and crucial scene; I’m just a little chagrined that I didn’t recognize him.
In the central role of Harry, Mark Addy (Robert Baratheon in Season 1 of Game of Thrones) suggests a wary bear—or perhaps rhino is more apt. He distrusts most people—and dislikes a majority of those. He sees the world—his world—for what it is and no one else is as clear-sighted. He knows the truth and anyone who doesn’t see things his way is a fool at best. The pub is Harry’s realm, and even “Albert bloody Pierrepoint” holds no sway there. A self-important bully, he doesn’t wear vulnerability well. All this is in Addy’s smooth and sure portrayal, full of bluster and show. Harry’s antagonist, Mooney, is played with insinuating menace and practiced charisma by Johnny Flynn. Mooney clearly relishes the disturbance his arrival in any setting generates, and he plays it to the hilt. He can confess a lie as convincingly as a truth—they’re the same to him in any case. If he were a plant, he’d be a Venus flytrap—and Flynn plays one. (Flynn’s program bio doesn’t list any Pinters—if he hasn’t done one, he definitely should.)
The general success of the Royal Court/ATC Hangmen is, of course, down to director Dunster, and there’s no doubt he’s mounted a terrific piece of theater from all perspectives. I may have wished that he and Gabis had softened the accents a bit for American consumption, but that’s a small quibble in the end. Otherwise, I can’t fault the acting, staging, or design. Like the ensemble acting, all the individual parts of the production scheme worked together to generate a little world that was all of a piece and successfully supported, perhaps even enhanced, McDonagh’s text. (I won’t make the same OBIE/Lortel prediction for Dunster to which I committed for the cast, but if the acting company gets an ensemble nod, the director ought to get a nomination as well.)
In addition to creating the sets, Fleischle also designed the spot-on costumes, evoking not only the mid-’60s time-frame, but the region and the working-class status of the characters, plus their individual personalities. (When Mooney takes off his coat and folds it inside-out so the lining shows, that striking orange satin liner makes a very clear impression.) The ambient sound of Ian Dickinson’s soundscape was also a significant element in creating the little world of Oldham that exists outside the pub and the atmosphere is kept ominous and threatening thanks to Joshua Carr’s mood lighting, complete with a drenching rainstorm.
The Show-Score round-up of the press coverage was pretty extensive (36 reviews as of 2 March—and at least one I know of, Hilton Als in the New Yorker, wasn’t one of them so there may be others Show-Score skipped), which doesn’t surprise me since this is McDonagh’s first première in the U.S. in eight years. His Oscar nomination probably also helped bring out the press. The reviews break down into 89% positive, 11% mixed, and none negative. (Several reviewers have promoted a transfer of Hangmen from ATC to Broadway—the Daily Beast’s Tim Teeman asked why “Hangmen isn’t on Broadway right from the get-go”—and Michael Riedel of the New York Post reported that the show’s producers are in talks to move the play, though exactly when that might happen is up in the air.) Show-Score’s highest rating was a 98 from TheaterScene.net (backed by 15 90’s, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the afore-mentioned Daily Beast); the lowest scores were a 50 from scribicide and a 55 from Lighting & Sound America, both websites. My survey will cover 24 notices.
In the Wall Street Journal, Terry Teachout pronounced Hangmen “a galvanizingly black farce about a subject . . . that few view as a laughing matter.” Teachout pointed out that McDonagh “is never more serious than when playing the clown, and ‘Hangmen’ is a deadly serious play that is also (forgive me) chokingly funny.” He labeled Hangmen “both a snapshot of provincial life at its most claustrophobic and a secular parable about the corrupting effects of vengefulness on the human soul.” The Journalist paid tribute to the cast, old and new, for “the high quality of their acting” and “to the rich characterfulness of Matthew Dunster’s staging.” He also praised Fleischle who “has contrived with neat resourcefulness to fit three different interiors, each one precisely and satisfyingly evocative, onto the smallish stage of the Atlantic Theater.” In sum, Teachout observed:
“Hangmen,” like “Three Billboards,” scrupulously avoids in-your-face point-making, demanding instead that the audience connect the dots without prompting and insisting on a moral ambiguity that will doubtless discomfit viewers who prefer always to know exactly who’s wearing the black hat and who the white. That’s the idea: Mr. McDonagh wants you to think, and it is his genius to do so by first making you laugh yourself silly. “Hangmen” succeeds triumphantly on both counts.
The WSJ reviewer further noted that the play “is selling out every show, and I expect it would continue to do so were this glitteringly well-staged version . . . to move uptown to a Broadway house—as it absolutely should.”
“[W]hile Hangmen lacks the metaphorical richness of McDonagh’s greatest work, The Pillowman,” declared Max McGuinness in the U.S. edition of the Financial Times, “it’s still good nasty fun.” McGuinness prefaced his review with an observation:
George Orwell once lamented “the decline of the English murder”. Recent murders, he wrote in 1946, all seemed banal and colourless. Orwell might well have approved of Martin McDonagh, whose blood-soaked oeuvre is never short of homicidal oomph. And having piled up bodies across Ireland, the US and continental Europe, McDonagh finally turns to murder in his native England with this grisly little play . . . .
The FT reviewer went on: “Hangmen has many features Orwell associated with a ‘good murder’—sex, envy, cunning and, above all, extreme violence lurking behind a façade of respectability.” He heaped praise on the performance of Flynn, who “eats up the stage as a sinister cheeky chappie in the mould of Bob Rusk from Hitchcock’s Frenzy” and reported that Flynn’s “smoothly menacing performance provides a perfect foil to Mark Addy’s textured portrayal of Harry, who shifts from imperious Northern bonhomie to blustering insecurity and reckless pique” under “Matthew Dunster’s restrained direction.” In conclusion, McGuinness, comparing Hangmen to what he saw as McDonagh’s flawed film script for Three Billboards, asserted that “theatre’s formal constraints here serve to rein in the author’s excesses, creating a gruesome sense of confinement.”
The Times’ Brantley, dubbing Hangmen “criminally enjoyable,” described it as “a juicy tale of capital punishment and other forms of retribution” and a “sly throat-gripping mystery.” The Timesman asks, “And aren’t we happy that Mr. McDonagh, who of late has mostly been otherwise engaged with movies . . ., has reclaimed his mantle as the great deceiver of contemporary theater?” and thanked ATC for bringing the Royal Court show, which Brantley had seen, to New York City. Hangmen, asserted Brantley, “is every bit as dark as Mr. McDonagh’s early, bloody plays.” “People are either foolish or dangerously flawed” in this world, and “these unadmirable qualities are joyous opportunities” for McDonagh’s “scalpel-edged gifts, . . . allowing for the sort of conversation in which stupidity and pettiness achieve the sparkle of wit.”
After remarking on the “gleaming precision and grinning relish” of Dunster’s staging, the Times review-writer lauded the cast, with (a lot of special) attention to (“sensational”) Johnny Flynn. (Brantley posited that “though it might be an overstatement to call Mooney Mr. McDonagh’s alter-ego,” he allowed that “it must be said, [the character] has a lot in common with the artful playwright who created him.”) Flynn plays Mooney “with fabulous insinuating swagger.” He dubs Addy’s Harry “first-rate” and has high praise for all the actors, from :Pierrepoint, Fry, Syd, Alice, and Shirley, to the “three wilting barflies.” Overall, Brantley reported, “‘Hangmen’ is often very funny. But as you laugh, you may feel the walls of Anna Fleischle’s clammy pub set closing in on you,” reminding us that “Mr. McDonagh can still work his double-edged, sinister magic on a stage, making breathless, alarmed and deeply satisfied dupes of us all.”
“Martin McDonagh has turned his attention to the swinging ’60s, but don’t expect Twiggy to show up in a miniskirt,” warned Barbara Schuler of Long Island’s Newsday. “It’s a very different kind of swinging McDonagh has in mind, the kind that takes place at the end of a rope,” she explained. Labeling Hangmen a “dark comedy (in the McDonagh tradition),” Schuler added that it “is an entertaining, gripping mystery at heart, full of the kind of twists that, were it a novel, would keep you up turning pages all night.” Though she dubs the conclusion “not-so-surprising,” the Newsday review-writer applauded Dunster for having directed “tautly” and praised the cast profusely: Flynn is “reeking malevolence”; Addy is “formidable”; Rogers is “fine”; French “perfectly captur[es] teenage angst”; and Geary “wring[s] a lot of pathos and some laughs out of his few minutes onstage.”
Joe Dziemianowicz called Hangmen “thoroughly entertaining but not completely airtight” in the New York Daily News, noting that its “thick” plot “chases ideas about power, guilt and innocence.” Dziemianowicz declared that “the whole ensemble is killer,” including even the barflies and that Fleischle’s “set . . . harbors its own surprises, costumes and lighting hit the right notes as they add to the mood.” The Daily Newsman concluded, “There have been better McDonagh plays in New York. But ‘Hangmen’ comes out swinging and despite questions that arise about why some characters do what they do, the play ropes you in.”
In am New York, Matt Windman quipped, “Familiar phrases like ‘gallows humor,’ ‘swinging sixties’ and ‘neck and neck’ take on a disturbingly literal meaning when applied to ‘Hangmen,’ Martin McDonagh’s old-fashioned, engrossing and extremely entertaining new play.” He pronounced the play “unquestionably one of the most exciting Off-Broadway productions of the season.” The amNY reviewer described Hangmen as “a meticulously-plotted work containing interesting, well-developed characters and built upon elements of black comedy, pub drama, physical farce, whodunit mystery, action thriller and legal drama—not to mention a noose and countless pints of cask ale.” In a “lively production” under Dunster’s direction, “with a rich scenic design,” the “superb cast” features Flynn, “in an electrifying, star-making performance.” The end result “finds the ideal balance between roaring entertainment and grim uneasiness.”
Hilton Als started off his New Yorker notice with a lament: he asserted that McDonagh’s “latest play, the comedic drama ‘Hangmen’ . . ., illustrates, perhaps more than any other, how the slick, self-satisfied cynicism that infects his weakest scripts threatens to overtake his real gifts.” Als missed, for instance, the playwright’s “excellent sense of structure and . . . a genuine understanding of how loneliness can twist bodies and twist the truth.” The New Yorker review-writer argued that “what one senses squatting onstage at the Linda Gross is the playwright’s tattered drive; no amount of spirited dialogue and action can hide his intellectual and spiritual exhaustion.” Als posited that McDonagh “may now be trapped by his own success.”
“Despite the contempt in his work—or because of it—McDonagh’s ‘bad boy’ image still gives audiences a racy thrill,” contended the reviewer. “But the excitement that he elicits is hollow.” The new play “relies on McDonagh’s technical skill and his jadedness: he knows what contemporary audiences want—to be dominated by ‘real’ men who piss on the theatre’s generally liberal air while conversing in unspeakable language.” Als is exercised by the casual racism of Mooney and Bill, one of the barflies, and asked, “Were there no other signs of difference in class-conscious England—the poor, the unemployed, the general ‘problem’ of immigration—for McDonagh to use to make his characters feel superior?” In the end, the review-writer summed up, “‘Hangmen’ is a pastiche about the patriarchy, old and new, and when, at the end of the play, Mooney has to pay for his cat-and-mouse sadism, the violence and the casualness with which that violence is met are simply proof of Harry’s right to keep his own counsel.” Als concluded his notice by suggesting that McDonagh should have written a different play: “‘Hangmen’ would have been infinitely more interesting—more energetic and more true—had McDonagh’s point been to show how illusory power is, and how destructive.”
In New York magazine, Sara Holdren described McDonagh’s play as “sly, plot-driven, and morbidly funny, with a masterly ear for regional voices and an array of plum parts for actors.” She went on to quibble a bit, however: “While more deliberate and less full-on explosive than some of McDonagh’s earlier work, Hangmen still taps into the undeniable satisfactions of clever plotting and strong character work.” Less “a profound examination of those ‘big subjects’ its author wanted to tackle” than “an impish evocation of them,” Holdren felt. The New York writer assured her readers that “the results are a nastily good time all the same.”
Helen Shaw of the Village Voice characterized Hangmen as “a solid night out for those who enjoy a bit of crawling dread alongside their jokes,” having noted that “we walked into that theater knowing full well the sort of ultraviolent hijinks playwright Martin McDonagh likes to get up to” and “because we like McDonagh’s if-it-bleeds-it-leads dramaturgy.” Shaw cavils a tad, though: “The play doesn’t have quite the same black magic it had back home—Hangmen is scaled to be a whale-versus-squid Battle of the Bad Men, and the whale has been recast with a pussycat.” She also found
The shift to the small Atlantic Theater isn’t altogether comfortable. There’s a distinct sense that Anna Fleischle’s beautiful set has been crammed too tightly into the space, and some of the performances still taste of the bigger venue. The director, Matthew Dunster, is directing the broader characters (like poor, telegraphing Syd) to a balcony that doesn’t exist, and his farce-choreography sometimes flattens out to a hieroglyphic line.
Shaw’s biggest disappointment, however, is Mark Addy’s performance. Comparing Addy to the Harry of his predecessor in London (David Morrissey), Addy comes off the loser in the Voice reviewer’s estimation. (He’s the “pussycat” who replaced the “whale” in Shaw’s analogy above.) “This leaves Mooney in too-clear command of the field,” she found. She explained:
We’re meant to see the men together so we can compare the various types of masculine violence—the kind that belongs and the kind that rebels. Flynn’s mesmerizing in the part, but without Morrissey to counter him, the play loses its saw-blade effect.
Shaw concluded her notice with this assessment:
Hangmen toes right up to the line on “glib,” perhaps because it’s self-consciously about something—namely, capital punishment—and yet doesn’t wind up saying much about it. But we don’t go to a McDonagh play to feel deeply about the world, or people, or life. We go for a little brush of poison on our lips, because it makes other things taste so sweet by comparison.
The Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney labeled Hangmen as “a delectably dark comedy about injustice, revenge and man’s instinct for violence”; his “Bottom Line” was “The very definition of gallows humor.” Rooney continued, “While the mood here is generally more playful, shadowed by an unnerving streak of menace right out of Harold Pinter, those bristling themes make this expertly crafted play a lively companion piece to McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” Most of McDonagh’s most successful plays have been set in Ireland, but his “humor has lost none of its uniquely vinegary tang with the shift to England,” Rooney found. (By the way, the HR reviewer had something of a response to Hilton Als’s complaint that only blacks were disparaged in McDonagh’s dialogue: “Northern Brits take the most flak, but black immigrants, Americans, the French, the Scots and particularly the Germans all are targets of droll swipes.”) The HR writer had high praise for the “uniformly strong cast” and reported that the “gruesome spectacle is made all the more startling by Anna Fleischle’s grimy set, Joshua Carr’s merciless lighting and Ian Dickinson’s unnerving sound design.” “McDonagh is back in top form here,” affirmed Rooney, and his overall assessment was comprehensive:
The first act’s teasing set-up deftly suggests all sorts of nasty outcomes and then the second act cleverly dismantles most of those expectations in a multi-character confrontation that gets messy in unpredictable ways, abetted by Dunster’s crafty blocking. If the later plotting becomes less precise, the dialogue—the majority of it in flavorful Northern English vernacular—crackles, the running jokes are devilishly good and the characters are incisively drawn, providing choice fodder for an electric ensemble.
Adam Feldman felt that Hangmen is “a play that wants to be both” funny and menacing. A “spirit of theatrical self-consciousness pervades McDonagh’s play,” complained Feldman, so “rather than pushing that potential into new territory . . . he falls into comfy conventions that he winks at, but which also function as excuses for a thin and implausible story.” Dunster’s direction “adds to the sense of artifice, with lurching shifts of mood-lighting and a physical space that works directly against the attempted comic suspense of the play’s denouement.” In conclusion, the man from TONY affirmed, “McDonagh twists his plot into a misanthropic noose that is only strong enough, in the end, to leave the play dangling, without a lethal snap. But yes, it does seem cool.”
In Variety, Marilyn Stasio warned, “Despite the howling laughter . . ., there’s a black storm cloud behind McDonagh’s surface wit.” She observed of Harry and Mooney, “It’s a treat to watch these antagonists, played with excruciating edginess by Addy and Flynn, circling one another with murder in their eyes.” The Variety writer wondered in her conclusion, “But in the end, McDonagh questions whether we even need official hangmen in the first place. Left to our own human devices, we will always find a way to kill one another.”
On TheaterMania, David Gordon characterized Hangmen as “quintessentially McDonagh: thrilling and chilling, ferociously hilarious, and wildly ambitious.” Alluding to some “limitations,” Gordon asserted nonetheless that “Dunster’s production is so excellent, and so fantastically acted, that the imperfections are easy to look past.” Both Hangmen and McDonagh’s current film “explore how out of reach justice must be for someone to be pushed to the point of exacting revenge,” contended the TM writer.
Both stories also question whether redemption is possible for someone trapped inside his or her own myopic universe. The answers don't come easily, and, onstage as onscreen, McDonagh has a tendency to paint himself into a corner, losing control while allowing the characters to talk in circles when he needs to rein it in.
“Nonetheless,” added Gordon. “it's a whole lot of fun to be placed into this sepia-toned world we see onstage, one featuring all of the characteristics that delight McDonagh's fans: spine-tingling savagery, unexpected twists, and some truly macabre gallows humor.” Dunster’s “staged the play as a pitch-perfect thriller” and Fleischle’s “vintage costumes and miraculous set . . . expertly depict the period,” Carr’s “moody lighting” and Dickinson’s “eerie sound effects . . . amp up the melodrama.” Singling out only Caulfield for criticism (his “tilted work seems a little too off even for this unconventional world”), Gordon dubbed the performances “firecrackers” in “a taut, eccentric ensemble.” Addy earns both “both revulsion and empathy” as Harry and Flynn’s Mooney is “teeming with the psychosexual menace.” In conclusion, Gordon asserted, “Hangmen falls on the higher end of the McDonagh spectrum, imperfect but engaging, and with enough exceptional moments to keep us talking. This one deserves to hang around for a long time.”
Elyse Sommer of CurtainUp was delighted that “McDonagh’s defection [to screenwriting] has not diminished his ability to shock and delight us with his gritty gallows humor.” Sommer observed, too, that “Hangmen is timely . . . because its title characters fit the much in the news global problem of job obsolescence.” The CU reviewer then quipped, “But leave it to McDonagh to tackle this subject with a job category that quite literally fits his style of humor by taking on a work category [n]ever discussed, written about or dramatized by anyone else.” Hangmen is “a work of McDonagh’s ever active, darkly comic imagination,” she asserted. Sommer affirmed that the play is “so much fun” because the playwright’s script is “stuffed with mysteries and surprises” and designer Fleischle “has managed to create three eye-popping, distinct sets.” After lauding the work of the cast, especially noting Flynn’s “deliciously menacing” Mooney and Shearsmith’s “spot-on” Syd, Sommer posited, “For all its darkly enjoyable humor, Hangmen does send the audience home with a serious message: Welcome as a law ending a justice system prone to unjust executions was, it didn't immediately and universally undo the urge to commit acts of violence.” She closed her notice with the declaration: “But hang it all . . . McDonagh does make his dark vision of humankind highly entertaining, no matter what the medium.”
On scribicide, the site with Show-Score’s lowest-rated review (50), Aaron Botwick opened his notice with a sort of psychoanalysis of McDonagh’s work:
The problem with being an enfant terrible is that eventually you grow up. Martin McDonagh, the angry young man who banged out four plays in two years in his late twenties, is now nearing fifty. The cynicism is still there; so is the black comedy, the moral ambiguity, and the penchant for spontaneous violence. But the anger is gone, I think, and Hangmen, his first new play since 2010, feels deflated as a result.
Botwick went into more detail: “There is no doubt that Mr. McDonagh is a talented writer. Hangmen is full of clever, funny lines. It is never boring and in at least one instance terrifically theatrical.” (He liked the working beer taps on stage.) The scribicide scribbler went on:
But the whole is somehow less than the sum of its parts; it feels more like a vehicle for those funny, clever lines than a cohesive narrative with a clear purpose. Perhaps there’s nothing wrong with that; it’s not as if we’re overwhelmed by playwrights with acid pens. But from Mr. McDonagh, I expected more.
I don’t guess there’s any confusion why Show-Score assigned this review a low rating; perhaps the question is, why only a 50 and not low enough to be a negative notice?
David Kaufman’s review on TheaterScene.net is at the opposite end of the scale, at 98, Show-Score’s highest-rated notice. Kaufman called Hangmen a “dark comedy” with “many twists and turns” and a “sense of good, old-fashioned suspense.” On Stage Buddy, K. Krombie concluded, with praise for the acting and the staging all around, that “Hangmen tugs at the rotten business of retribution at the same time as eliciting unrepentant laughter. It may be McDonagh’s best play yet.”
David Hurst called Hangmen “a brilliant, new black comedy” on Talkin’ Broadway and predicted, “Undoubtedly it will rack up accolades on this side of the pond.” Hangmen, wrote Hurst, “finds McDonagh in spine-tingling form telling a story of resentment and retribution.” With the help of the “impeccable design team,” director Dunster “weaves a spell of loony comedy with genuinely frightening violence to create a gallows-humor production that could only have come from the pen of McDonagh.”
On Broadway World, calling the ATC show an “enjoyably discomforting production,” Michael Dale promised that in Hangmen, “violence is accompanied by realistically dark humor, played expertly by director Matthew Dunster's company.” Samuel L. Leiter, writing on Broadway Blog, is of the opinion that “when it comes to sucking you into the vortex of a darkly funny, violence-tinted, dramatic world, nobody does it with quite the same reliably mesmerizing results” than Martin McDonagh, and so it is with his latest “dark comedy.” “Hangmen has its feet in surface realism but,” demurred Leiter, “as devilishly well directed by Matthew Dunster, it’s up to its neck in theatricality.” The Broadway Blogger complimented Fleischle’s set designs, adding: “But, with this sterling company, Hangmen would be riveting even if the stage was bare, the lights unchanging, and the actors in rehearsal clothes.” The events of the play “coalesce in a gruesome, wickedly funny, technically clever denouement highlighting McDonagh’s themes of crime, revenge, and punishment” (which Leiter declined to reveal). Leiter ended his notice with something of a pun (sort of): “Hangmen doesn’t necessarily add anything to the ongoing capital punishment debate but there’s no question that it provides capital entertainment.”
New York Theatre Guide’s Tulis McCall found that “[l]ike every other McDonagh piece we are served up a goodly portion of violence with the threat and the possibility of more hanging just around the corner of the stage.” McCall continued, “There is cryptic humor, braggadocio, and the kind of bi-polar mood explosions that leave your stomach churning.” But she had some issues, explaining, “Also like much of McDonagh's other writing, this one leads you exactly where he wants to take you, when your money would be better spent going in the opposite direction.” She wondered, "What am I missing?" and decided she “was missing a story that I could believe, and characters who were more than two dimensional”—despite “quite excellent” performances. “Perhaps this is supposed to be a rollicking farce,” McCall wondered, and “I am missing the intention of the entire shebang.” Reminding me of my companion Diana’s question the night we saw the play, McCall remarked, “It is uncomfortable to sit in a theatre and hear people laugh at abuse in whatever form it takes. And laugh they do. And stand and cheer they did as well.”
Michael Bracken of Theater Pizzazz pointed out, “Given McDonagh’s track record . . . we know we’re in for a shot of dark, twisted humor and more than a passing glance at the human underbelly.” Hangmen, he found, “forces us to acknowledge the venality of human behavior, even while we laugh it off.” Bracken affirmed, “At least part of the reason McDonagh is so successful in spinning the straw of tragedy into black comedy gold is his laser-like sense of character,” and the TP reviewer ran down the theatrical assets of the characters of Hangmen with relish, concluding that “Dunster coaxes fine performances from his cast, who are marvelously in sync with each other.” He also observed that “McDonagh’s dialogue is, true to form, crisp and clear” and that the director “and his creative team deliver a world that sucks us right in; we could be sitting at the next table at the pub.”
On WNYC radio, Jennifer Vanasco said that Hangmen is “a darkly comic thriller that is also a meditation on the justice of revenge.” Vanasco contended that the play is about the “idea that revenge, even the civic kind, is a tricky business. Truth can be obscure. And heated (or judicial) certitude can turn out to be all hot air.” On NY1, the proprietary news channel of Spectrum cable in New York City, Roma Torre said that in Hangmen “McDonagh’s trademark black humor and violent depictions are front and center . . ., making for yet another knockout production.” Torre continued that the playwright, “a master storyteller, has laid out an edge-of-your-seat yarn that will draw both gasps and guffaws in equal measure” and “keeps us guessing with his misfit characters, seemingly crafted as stereotypes until we discover they’re not.” She added that “under Matthew Dunster’s shrewd direction, you never see the plot twists coming.” Furthermore, Torre declared, “The cast . . .is to die for.” The cable TV reviewer summed up by stating:
There’s a lot packed into “Hangmen” which made me think of “Cheers,” “The Iceman Cometh,” and “The Silence of the Lambs” mixed up in a crazy stew. But hang all that; McDonagh and his wonderful cast of oddball characters are in a special class all to themselves.
[While I was noodling around on the ‘Net in prep for writing this report, I discovered two related factoids. One is that Harry Wade is based on a real person: a hangman named Harry Allen (1911-92) who became a pub-owner in Lancashire and who, like the character in the play, always wore a bow tie to executions. Allen presided over the hanging execution of James Hanratty for murder—in 1962, not 1963 (the execution of the fictional James Hennessy in the play). There was a movement to clear Hanratty’s name—until 2002 when he was proved guilty by DNA evidence. Allen remained on the job until the end of executions in England; in 1964, he hanged one of the two last condemned men to be executed for murder. (The last woman to be hanged in England was executed in 1955.)
[Harry Wade is the rival of Albert Pierrepoint in the play; it turns out Pierrepoint (1905-92) was a real person, too, known as the most efficient hangman in the country, or other titles of similar superlativity. Harry Allen was Pierrepoint’s assistant from 1941 to 1955. Also factual are the executions Clegg lists as “miscarriages of justice” which “Albert bloody Pierrepoint” (as Harry Wade constantly called him) oversaw. (One of these was Ruth Ellis, the last woman hanged in England.) He retired in 1956, almost 10 years before the abolition of hanging in England. (Pierrepoint was pretty famous in his day—he was brought to Germany after World War II to execute some of the war criminals convicted at Nuremberg—but I wonder if anyone in the London audiences of today would recognize the name.)]