"Gallows humour" probably lives in the
same area as sarcasm, self-deprecation and the "stiff upper lip" as
stereotypically British ways of how to deal with difficult or challenging
emotional situations. And whilst it may seem an obvious metaphor to say that
It will hit most of us... that our own recent history could be a dark and disturbing time and that having too much unerring belief in only our own judgments and values is a lonely and dangerous place to be.
Set in the early 60s just as the merits of hanging as a punishment and a deterrent were being debated - leading to its abolishment in Great Britain in 1965 when most of the play takes places on the cusp of this decision being made - the play centres around one of the last 'great' hangmen, Harry Wade (played by David Morissey in the brusque northern manner that, let's face it, we have seen him play many many times before). The definition of "greatness" is a key theme here - we merit our self-worth, success, beliefs and the decisions we make, based on our own individual judgements - in Harry's case, his pride in his "greatness" comes from being second, in terms of numbers of hangings, only to the more famous Albert Pierrepoint (whose numbers were 'unfairly' bolstered due to the hangings that resulted from the trials of Nazi war criminals which he couldn't participate in due to a clash with the Grand National!). This deep rooted belief in his own worth and of being 'right' is clear from the first scene, where we see him about to carry out one of his last executions - more emotional at the incorrect use of the term 'hung' in place of 'hanged' than he is at the desperate pleas of innocence. Not for him to judge the law's decision - he just wants to get the job done efficiently and with the correct terminology being used. And hanged this man will be - right in front of us.
Such a dark opening is, however, laugh out loud funny as McDonagh's script is filled with naturalistic truisms that we will recognise from recent history, and a matter-of-factness that runs throughout the play. The reality is that these men believe what they were doing was right, they have their own set of moral values and were never likely to discuss feelings or emotions, or have these beliefs challenged in conversation with others, so why should they theatrically? So we watch and listen and laugh at what they do say whilst all the time making our own interpretations and assumptions of what they don't along with the impact that has.
Two years after this hanging, the rest of the play takes place in the dingy, smoky pub that Wade runs with his wife and daughter, and where he still clings to this belief in his own greatness by playing Lord and Master to his family and all others who enter. It's his rules, his stories, his pub - even if his pub is but one of the many seedy London watering holes of the time, that doesn't matter, it's his.
And all who do enter bring along their own values, comfortable that they are in an environment without challenge. The casual racism, the possibly bent copper, the alcohol and gambling problems - none of these are addressed, they are merely stated as existing. When an emotional issue dares to veer its head, it is wiped away with the same effort and speed it takes to empty one of the many pub ashtrays - a clear metaphor on the value they assign to such real issues. So when a mysterious, slightly aggressive, and worst of all Southern ("are you the Babycham man" shows the expectation and disdain given to all Southerners) stranger appears (played by Johnny Flynn, whose air, mannerisms and delivery owe much to the stylings of Russell Brand), we watch the mainly psychological fallout that his challenges and his 'different' ways cause them. The actual events that take place in the aftermath matter less than seeing how fragile these self-beliefs remain when they are challenged - with little substance or understanding underneath to save these steady souls from doing unthinkable and irrational things.
Without the demonstration of any characters' awareness of their own subconscious, the events play out almost as farce and, indeed, the audience find parts hysterical. The script never touches on any depth of thinking, the characters don't learn anything or go an any usual narrative arc. You can't help but think that, no matter how extreme the events have got by the end of the play, tomorrow all will be back to normal, with nothing talked about, nothing learned, just "pints all round lads".
This is both the strength and possible weakness of the piece - everything is left for us as the audience to take out what we will. Having been a part of this claustrophobic, insular, male-dominated world, set in environments that look like they stink of death (the prison, the pub and the cafe settings are brilliantly designed by Anna Fleischle to give a feeling of underlying dirt throughout), we still leave laughing. The hope is that it will hit most of us soon after that our own recent history could be a dark and disturbing time and that having too much unerring belief in only our own judgments and values is a lonely and dangerous place to be.