Hangmen: what January blues?

Showing at the Wyndhams theatre until 5th March 2016

I came to this play with high expectations. Hangmen transferred to the Wyndhams following a sell out run at the Royal Court Theatre with a 5 starry trail of praise: “drop-dead hilarious” according to The Independent, whilst The Daily Telegraph hailed it as “the most line-by-line funny show London has seen in years”.  It didn’t disappoint.

Hangmen is written by Olivier and Academy Award winner Martin McDonagh (also writer and director of In Bruges with Ralph Fiennes).  We join Harry Wade (David Morrissey) and his assistant in his final day at work – and immediately experience the gripping combination of hilarity and dramatic tension that defines the play throughout. Hanging was abolished in the UK in, unbelievably, 1965. Although the prison stage set quickly disappears from our view, slowly rising to be replaced by the pub Harry owns in Oldham, it is clear Harry’s previous profession is very much hanging over the family.  It seems hanging was a competitive trade like any other and we see Harry keen to outshine rival Pierrepoint in an interview with the Oldham Gazette.

Hangmen truly connects with its audience and from the first quips the chuckling dim rows make their presence felt. The flawlessly delivered comic lines reach out and demand a reaction from you. McDonagh takes a subject matter that could easily be tragedy, real or imagined, and somehow makes it funny, summoning from me at least a slightly bewildering mix of mirth, concern, and complete complicity as events unfold. Personally the feeling of being right there in the pub was pleasantly added to by the Northern accents and place names. Hearing Formby mentioned on the West End (particularly when in sinister, humorous connection to a garage and a family-sized box of Weetabix) makes me smile. It’s refreshing to see a play not southern-centric in its geography.

The humour is black, blue, with some good old British Stephen-Fry-esque grammar jokes (“it’s hanged not hung”) and adolescent angst courtesy of Harry’s teenage daughter (“I don’t get doors. It’s in the shy charter”) thrown in for good measure. There’s something for everyone. Providing they’re 14+. Harry’s never had a complaint, although his pints might have a bit of a pissy taste.

The lines are hilarious but what McDonagh is trying to achieve with them is another matter. In the space of just over 50 years are we far enough away from the abolition of capital punishment as arbitrary ‘justice’ to laugh entirely comfortably? Can it be seen in different forms above our heads and outside our little “great” island today? What about the jokes about gay men, black people, women – all of which are certainly nothing novel? The first half of the play leaves you smugly feeling you’ve got it sussed, only for the plot to swing away entirely into brilliant unexpectedness in the second half. And indeed this audience experience of completely miscalculating is the difficult thing about ‘justice’ after all – particularly when it involves the death penalty – whether it is carried out in a prison or in a pub, what happens if we get it wrong?

Turns out we’re not all friendly up north.

 

“Imagination is the only weapon in the war against reality”

Wonder.land 
showing at the National Theatre until 30th April 2016

  • staged by Rufus Norris
  • written by Moira Buffini
  • with a score by Blur’s Damon Albarn

The average user touches his or her smartphone 221 times a day. We take our phones to bed and they wake us up in the morning. They accompany us everywhere we go, every day. Some of us even have two. It is fair to say mobiles have a powerful presence in our lives.

Commissioned by Manchester International Festival, Wonder.land takes Alice’s fantastical world entirely into this modern screen focused existence. Wonder.land is an online game teenage Aly plays on her phone. It is a world which is open to her whether she is at home or at school, providing her phone isn’t confiscated…

Faced with a new school, a sneering girl gang and a host of family troubles Aly turns to the online world of wonder.land for entertainment, escape, even self-validation. The very Alice question “who am I?” is played out in her creation of an online Alice.  Alice wants her avatar to be as different from her as it is possible to be. Ally Luke later comments with bewilderment on the “white princess” she’s created (Aly is mixed race). The search for self-discovery is a little too neatly dealt with and rather thickly laid on at times. Where it interlaces with technology though it is thought provoking. Aly’s ability to “try out” a different appearance through her avatar sniffs strongly of the very real world power of the airbrushed, size subzero visual impossibilities we strive to measure up to. In the play examples are numerous: there is the giant rabbit boy who girls think is “too short”, the girl hiding in a bin, mortified by her avatar fail, the school bully’s (fear of a) moustache, Alice herself. Which Alice it is is another question… but “our dad says red’s a slut colour”.

                “I’m afraid I can’t explain myself, sir. Because I am not myself, you see?”

Wonder.land is a visual spectacle which plays out beautifully before us on a screen across the back of the stage, a dazzling contrast to the dull monotonous grey of the sets the real world characters trudge through. The Caterpillar is a glittering green monstrosity, the White Rabbit is gas-masked and dressed in a white tutu, his intermittent reappearance on stage a reminder of the end of the quest. But what is the end of the quest? When is the game over? The “who am I?” question returns us to what it is we see. The importance of the eyes is everywhere.

For the audience the immersive digital installation outside the Olivier theatre takes you down the rabbit hole before the show even begins. Quotes from the play are splashed graffiti like across the walls and your image is replicated across mirrors, phone and tablet screens. You can make your own wonder.land avatar, or sit with a headset in the girls’ school toilets. Technology and would-be selfies surround you – your on-screen face each time neatly replaced with a gleaming pink Cheshire cat grin.

The online generation’s intimacy with screens is addictive, dangerous, exhilarating, soothing. Our investment in online is emotional, monetary and time consuming. Aly’s dad’s addiction to online gambling is portrayed as the destructing force crumbling his marriage and separating him from the family unit: Aly, her mum and new baby Charlie. Our obsession with online opens our identities out more obviously to manipulation and monopoly. Our vulnerabilities can be viewed, shared, used against us; but they can also be revised. Online can also empower us. It then becomes a question of how that power is used (and so back to the question of “who am I?”) – to sling insults about on “walls”? or to show a red queen’s true colours to the community through a bit of online streaming?

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Perhaps in the age of selfies and social media we are just more visible to the world. How we look, who we choose to be friends with, what content we decide to engage with, can all on some level define us, and can all be made available for everyone to see – and so we are more self conscious as a result. The versions of our selves which we choose to show to the world can be edited and even untrue. Alice’s interrogation of selfhood requires fresh investigation now there is a whole new digital world in which to be ourselves (or others). Hopefully Wonder.land is only the beginning of this exploration.