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From the gallows: Martin McDonagh

As five-star show ‘Hangmen’ transfers to the West End, we talk to the play’s bad-boy writer-director, Martin McDonagh

Martin McDonagh is worried. He’s just slagged off a former artistic director of the Royal Court Theatre… but is concerned he didn’t do it well enough.  

He shakes his head. ‘The thing is I wanna slag him off, but I want to be precise and smart and say exactly what I mean and I don’t think I did that.’

The individual in question severed the fruitful relationship between the Court – the UK’s premiere new writing theatre – and McDonagh – the most caustically funny voice of his generation – after apparently dismissing the playwright’s largely Ireland-set work as ‘all a bit “Father Ted”.’

‘The last hangmen were these pub landlords in the north of England. The play is as much about celebrity as it is about hanging.’

McDonagh walked away from the Court, and that worked out fine for him: he won an Olivier for 2003’s ‘The Pillowman’ (we can expect a revival next year), then scored screen success with ‘In Bruges’ and ‘Seven Psychopaths’.

But then he wrote a brilliant new play, ‘Hangmen’, set in ’60s Lancashire on the day that the death penalty was abolished. He wanted it staged quickly, and the Court – under new boss Vicky Featherstone – had a gap in its schedule. ‘You can’t hold a grudge against a building,’ he says. ‘Well, you can, but it’s a bit mean.’

Brit-Irish McDonagh has a reputation for shooting his mouth off, and I suppose it’s justified. But he’s also thoughtful and charming, the odd controversial utterance symptomatic of scrupulous honesty as much as anything else. 

And he’s in a good mood: ‘Hangmen’ was a sell-out, critically acclaimed hit at the Court and is about to transfer to Wyndham’s Theatre in the West End for a longer run. It stars David Morrissey as Harry, a pub landlord and newly retired hangman enjoying life as a local legend in his blokey, un-PC corner of Oldham – until one day in the early ’60s his past comes back to haunt him.

‘I was interested in the dark, murky England at that time,’ says McDonagh. ‘The idea that the end of hanging happened so recently, at the start of the supposedly swinging ’60s. But also the last hangmen were these pub landlords in the north of England. The play is as much about celebrity as it is about hanging.’

‘Hangmen’ is an stingingly funny and genuinely  disturbing vision of an era that sits pointedly at odds with our folk memory of the ’60s. And it seems to have re-enthused McDonagh about theatre. ‘I wouldn’t call myself an anti-theatre person,’ he smiles. ‘Any more.’

Buy tickets to see ‘Hangmen’

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