This Irish premiere of McDonagh’s first England-set play is running at the Gaiety Theatre until April 8
Hanging used to be a form of popular entertainment for crowds, and Martin McDonagh — like Harold Pinter, whose influence is most visible here — understands how to engage with an audience’s sadism in a controlled way: the “safe word” is theatre.
This Irish premiere of McDonagh’s first England-set play has been a while coming. Originally presented in 2015 at the Royal Court in London, its West End transfer won the Olivier for Best New Play. Gaiety Productions in association with Decadent Theatre, with Arts Council support, give it a well-cast outing here in the capital.
Set in 1960s England, the action opens in a prison. A man is protesting his innocence and gripping the bedposts to slow his pace towards execution. He is summarily whipped and subjugated by the hangman, Harry Wade. Then he is hanged, dropping through a trapdoor in Ciaran Bagnall’s hardwood set that mimics the heavy shape of a scaffold.
Harry becomes a pub landlord, as Bagnall’s scaffold becomes a pub ceiling. A regular clientele of alcoholics and yes-men provide a comic male chorus who hang on Harry’s every word. A menacing stranger called Mooney appears looking for lodgings as though he has strayed in from a Pinter play. He seems to have some connection with the man who was hanged at the start. When Harry’s 15-year-old daughter, Shirley, disappears, Mooney becomes the focus of suspicion, and the community turns savage.
Harry is an insufferable, vain and pompous bully; Denis Conway captures this perfectly with a dominating performance that fills the auditorium. Killian Scott, making his theatre debut, is a spiky, oddball Mooney.
Olivia Byrne, also in a stage debut, shines as young Shirley. Aisling O’Sullivan is perfect as Harry’s wife, Alice, tippling gin throughout and maintaining a feminine delicacy in the male-dominated air. Director Andrew Flynn astutely creates space and pace with plenty of looks and pauses.
McDonagh is an entertainer first and foremost, and the play is indeed very funny. But it lacks the political or psychological insights that usually add salt to his confections and give his work real bite. While the narrative noose tightens rewardingly towards the end, the intellectual payoff is left disappointingly hanging.
Hangmen, Gaiety Theatre, Dublin, until April 8