Well it’s been over a week, but a very busy one, so I haven’t had time to blog about Hangmen, which I wanted to do in the first flush of excitement after the screening. Strangely, I couldn’t persuade anyone to come with me, always a problem because bouncing thoughts off another person helps crystallise my own.
First impressions: the set. It so cleverly and exactly captured the colour schemes and style of the ’60s. The bleak institutional green and cream of the prison. Then after the shock of this opening the darkness through which the lights of the pub began, slowly, to pierce the dark, menacing like watching eyes. They brightened to a pinkish glow and I was there! Then! Back in one of those ghastly pubs of the time with their permanent proppers-up of the bar by the old men, the lonely and down-and-outs, for whom this is the closest thing they have of home and family.
This chorus of pub-goers is masterly. At times it is almost poetic in the Greek way, with the repetition of lines needed because of the deafness of the oldest [and most malicious] of them. A rhythm is established, a humorous near orchestral blend of voices with their different timbres and paces.
Often the play reminds us of Joe Orton. It shares a similar black humour, always hovering on the edge of the tasteless, the taboo. Sometimes the humour is so black as to make us feel guilty that we still laughed. I love that! That blend of nervous laughter, belly laughter and guilt.
As if it is an homage to the ’60s genres as well as atmosphere and setting, we have already doffed a cap at Orton and now we have the Pinteresque advent of the stranger, humorous, attractive, unsettling. Oh, and I loved his look – his rather greasy-looking tousled-blond hair, his maroon-pink shiny suit [I can’t define the colour and yet it is so reminiscent of that time]. He looked like a member of a band of that time, say Herman and the Hermits. He immediately comes over as slightly seedy – you wouldn’t want your daughter to go out with him – slightly untrustworthy, in a car-salesman-y kind of way. And what happens? The bar-owners’ daughter does appear to have run off with him – or not.
It is a comedy. It is a thriller. It swings our emotions. And it manages to be a serious debate about hanging, just in case any of us should want to bring it back. Starting with the hanging of a man who swears he is innocent, this is gradually cast more and more in doubt by our sleazy stranger, who appears to be hinting that he was the murderer and that maybe he has struck again – the innocent under-age over-weight but far from stupid daughter of the publicans. Strung up, to get the truth out of him, by the publican, who happens to be also the retired hangman [since hanging has recently been banned] of the original accused, our suspicion of the stranger is tested to the extreme. It is rare that there is real tension in a live theatre thriller but this is an exception. As we live through the delays and growing suspense, knowing that a young man is dangling behind a screen, his interrogation interrupted by a visitor to the pub, we start to question everything about death by hanging. This might actually be happening. The theatre is silent; the audience holds its breath. And when the visitor finally leaves, having drawn out the buttoning up of his coat to the nth degree, we are rooting for the young man’s life, even though he may indeed be a murderer. And then the daughter, safe and sound, walks in! But the stranger is dead.
The last lines of the play ask us to consider how often such miscarriages of justice may have occurred. We are left uncertain. The opening of the play is brought back to mind. That victim of the hangman had protested his innocence. This second hanging was also for a crime he did not commit. Had he been guilty of other crimes? We don’t know. The question is left open. The whole difficulty of proving guilt or innocence is called into question.
I’ve strayed into story-telling. How else has the play managed to be a debate about hanging? By having the main character [played excellently and at furious speed by David Morrissey] as one of the last hangmen, now turned publican. His great rival was Pierpoint, who became famous [in real life] for hanging many ex-Nazis after the Nuremberg trials. They have an ongoing competitiveness about their fame, the numbers they have dealt with, their style of hanging and efficiency. It is Pierpoint who, incensed by a boastful newspaper article in which his rival slates him, has come to the pub to have it out with him. It is he who castigates Morrissey-as-Harry, his rival, while the stranger behind the screen is hanging, probably dying. The rivalry between the two men causes the death by hanging of yet another innocent [of this latest crime at least], after hanging itself has become illegal! Masterly!