The last time I saw a new play by Martin McDonagh I was pregnant with my son. He turned 12 last month. The play I'd seen sober and needing to pee more than a decade ago was Pillowman, starring David Tenant at the National. In a lifetime of attending plays, Pillowman remains in the top three greatest nights of theater.
McDonagh plays are ferocious. (So are his movies, In Bruges and Seven Psychopaths) I remember going to see Lieutenant of Inishmore when I first arrived in London and then going back to see it the next week. That's the only time I have done that with a play and that's because the casual violence, the trueness of the characters, the wit of the dialogue, the rollicking pace of the plot - this elated me. Wide-eyed, joyful and jealous. That's me after a McDonagh play. Witty, violent, true, perfectly plotted - these are the hallmarks, I think, of McDonagh's writing. McDonagh himself calls theatre "the worst of all the art forms". I sure that this is why his plays are so good.
So last night I caught his new play Hangmen at the Wyndham. It starts with a scene of a hanging in 1963, a man protesting his innocence of the crime - something to do with messing with girls in Norfolk - and also wishing he could get the best hangman, Pierrepont, instead of his second-rate executioner, Harry Wade. Two years later, hanging has been abolished, Harry Wade is a publican in the north of England. His wife Alice drinks gin in the background and his 15-year-old daughter Shirley mopes. He gives a vain, revisionist interview about his hanging career - trying to prove his superiority to Pierrepont. During the interview, the real guilty party from 1963, a sort of Guy Ritchie-esque Mooney convinces the hangman's 15-year-old daughter to go on a drive.
When McDonagh was writing his earlier plays about the Troubles in Ireland I definitely sensed more love in the writing than I do now. The Greek Chorus of alcoholics at the pub - the police inspector, an old geezer, a self-confessed drunk - are sad, shiftless, misshapen people. They are hollow. Harry Wade is a tragic wasted life, and his delusional vanity seems drawn from the one thing he had - the power to kill people for the state. I wonder if McDonagh thinks they are related - that the neurotically masked self-loathing of Wade comes from his license to kill. Or whether, maybe, the job hardly attracts healthy people. Not that anyone was healthy in the 60's up north. It was all pints and peanuts and cigarettes apparently.
How Wade handles Mooney, gets back his daughter and takes the backlash from Pierrepont who arrives having read the interview is hugely entertaining, but I certainly didn't love any of the characters. Nor did they really love each other. What I loved was seeing the parallels, the shadows, the connections between them. The depiction of the strange half-life women lived then. I also loved that the fiery monologue of an angrily defensive Shirley was so genuinely vibrant against a stage full of beige middle-aged men. I could almost love her abductor, Mooney (a scene with him in a cafe is just about perfect: "Don’t worry. I may have my quirks but I’m not an animal. Or am I? One for the courts to discuss"). What I loved the most was the exhiliration of seeing a play - oh no - I have to say it - perfectly executed.