Did you find that funny?
Heaving a collective sigh of relief after the recent by-election in Oldham (the place just north of Manchester in which Martin McDonagh’s new play is set) there is, with some, still the bad aftertaste of having only narrowly avoided a renewed surge of ugly UKIP-led chauvinism. And it is indeed Englishness that is most under scrutiny in McDonagh’s first stage show in over a decade. Hangemen uses the event of the abolition of the capital punishment in the UK in 1965 to slowly spell out the workings of a dangerous self-perpetuating circle of abuse of power, loss of it and male insecurity. Along with casual racism and mysogyny the piece, which has now transfered from the Royal Court to the West End, places the country’s fascination with violence firmly in its centre and reveals it as England’s untreated rotten tooth. Eerily, it does so mostly by making us laugh.
Director Matthew Dunster offers an intelligent and handsome production of what is decidedly not a kitchen sink drama. This is a pub play, and it’s not just any old pub, it’s gorgeous boozer, an ur-pub if you will, that Anna Fleischle has designed here. In its wooden warmth and brassy glow Harry Wade (David Morrissey), pub landlord and also the last hangmen in the country, has gathered a group of admiring lonely souls who are genuinely thrilled to be served their pints by a bona-fide killer. Hangmen at the time had gathered considerable celebrity status. Morrisey who sports a ridiculous dickie bow is all booming voice and long strides but they never quite suffice to cover up a gaping hole of insecurity. In the public perception he remains forever inferior to another hangmen, the infamous Pierrepoint, who has killed more people and presumably has done so better, however bizzare such a comparision might strike you.
As with every good pub play (think Conor McPherson’s The Weir or Simon Stephen’s Christmas) Wade’s pub is also visited by an intruder who disrupts the carefully established balance between landlord and punters. Here the guest is a shaggy-haired youngster from London called Mooney played by Johnny Flynn who directs the character’s charge into a sinister territory. Full of pretentious quips and lairy behaviour he becomes the catalyst for a series of thrilling plot twists involving Wade’s daughter Shirley and Wade’s former assistant Syd. Andy Nyman, after taking on the role from Reece Shearsmith, brings a laughable meakness to the role of the stuttering sidekick. The female characters, Bronwyn James’s Shirley and Sally Rogers who plays Wade’s gin-guzzling wife, are subjected to constant put-downs and insults but at least they offer a defiant chin to the posturing pub machos once in a while.
The play is not simply about the people up on stage and the shocking spiral of slapstick-dressed complicity they run themselves into. It is also about the audience and the way it laughs at what it sees. Do you ever wonder what happens in your head when you laugh at a racist joke? You might think that’s easy to answer because you wouldn’t laugh at one of those. What about misogynist ones when they’re really, really funny? You’re still good? How about Northeners? They can take it, right? How about robbing a recently excecuted individual of their diginity by making jokes about their genitals? Surely, that’s the tipping point? Come on, everyone likes a good dick joke!
The horrific effect of McDonagh’s sharp and twisty language becomes most palpable listening to a London audience laugh merrily at the haplessness of these Northern pub lads, the ineffective policemen and the exchange of verbose provocations. They all drink heartily from a pool of very vile humour and we chink glasses with them. This show walks an incredibly fine line between farcical undermining, difficult perpetuation and all too subtle condemnation of the linguistic and physical violence it depicts. The thing is, I doubt that the script is ever unaware of what it is doing and I don’t believe that McDonagh really writes jokes simply to shock. It’s just that Matthew Dunster’s production doesn’t quite go far enough in pointing out the complicit quality of our laughter. I think McDonagh’s humour is just as violent as some of the actions his characters take on stage. These sexist and racist lines come up again and again and again, and instead of shocked silence when a man gets clubbed in the neck a simple quip is enough to redeem him and dissolve any worry about un-PC-ness into uprorious laughter. McDonagh sticks a valve right into the middle of this hypocritical mess and releases the pressure through the audience laughter in the dark. It’s like he says that as the viewer I can pretend all I like that I am appalled by the sound of someone farting (or making racist jokes) but secretely I am quite pleased by the stench because I know that it’s my own.
The fusion of farcical, slapstick-like form with all-too-real violent themes turns the comedic language into a strange kind of torture that slaps you in the face until you give in and take pleasure in the abuse taking place in front of your eyes. By the end, when the author’s proclivity for circular storytelling closes with an outrageous mockery of a happy ending, it is the production’s shyness about stylistically matching the text’s delicious crudeness and not the text itself which is at fault for the audience’s grinning jaws not going limp in horror. It’s not about whether McDonagh’s play is funny, it’s about whether and how it makes you laugh.