This play has grown on me.
When Martin McDonagh’s Hangmen premiered in New York four years ago, I saw it as the work of an aging enfant terrible, entertaining but lacking bite. After attending a recent performance of the Broadway transfer, I had to look up what I had written to remember why I didn’t like it.
It’s 1965, and Great Britain has abolished the death penalty. A reporter for the Oldham Gazette (Owen Campbell) wants to get a comment from Harry (David Threlfall), one of the most famous hangmen in Northern England and now the owner of an old-fashioned pub. At first, Harry demurs. He keeps his own counsel, and such beliefs are a “very private matter.” It doesn’t take much prodding, however, before Harry is expounding on the ethics of capital punishment and quibbling about his stats: a rival hangman (John Hodgkinson) only has superior numbers because he was in Nuremberg and got to hang “all them bastards as ran the camps and whatnot.” But when asked about James Hennessey—the evidence for his guilt was shaky—Harry refuses to reconsider his position: “Hennessy never killed anybody after I got ahold of him.”
But then Harry’s daughter (Gaby French) goes missing, and a young, menacing stranger (Alfie Allen) who has been hanging around the pub starts to look mighty suspicious. Is he the killer whose murders James Hennessey hanged for? Is Harry being punished for his complicity in a miscarriage of justice? It shouldn’t be giving too much away to say that Hangmen is not set in a universe ruled by a moral order, and the answer to both questions is chaotic, violent, and ambiguous.
The cast is uniformly excellent, meeting a text which calls for performances that are less natural than archetypal. Much of the pleasure of Hangmen comes in how expertly McDonagh has written dialogue for these recognizable types; as the setting is a pub, these include a variety of great talkers. My personal favorite is Charlie (Ryan Pope), who repeats to his hard-of-hearing companion (John Horton) nearly everything Harry says and who reminds me of a few older audience members I’ve heard over the years. The set, too, is phenomenal—Hangmen benefits from the transfer to the larger John Golden Theatre—and the working tap from which Harry and his family pull a dozen or more pints is spectacular.
It’s tempting to ascribe timeliness to Hangmen. Two years into a deadly pandemic, the merciless nature of death and chance is ubiquitous. But it is timeless, too, and it shouldn’t take a global catastrophe to appreciate how McDonagh can look death in the eye and smirk.
Hangmen runs through January 19th at the Golden Theatre. 252 W. 45th Street New York, NY. 2 hours 30 minutes. One intermission. Photograph by Joan Marcus.