The Hanging Man
This is the eighth production to come from the creative collaboration between Phelim McDermott, Lee Simpson and Julian Crouch for Improbable Theatre. Theirs is something of a unique style: visual, physical, musical and surreal, without any gimmicks, and much in demand with audiences, as can be attested to by the international renown of the Olivier Award winning Shockheaded Peter.
The Hanging Man has been devised by the company and is based on the bizarre tale of architect and cathedral builder Edward Braff who hanged himself but couldn't die. In this fantasy version, delivered as a piece of embodied storytelling with frequent comic asides (when their source material fails them they admit they just made it up), Braff hangs from his beam interminably, making funny and futile attempts to shuffle off his mortal coil, while Death herself has gone on strike because she's not appreciated. Nobody is dying and Braff, still swinging on the end of his rope, becomes a curiosity, an object of veneration and, in some quarters, fury. This provides the company with a multitude of possibilities for comic action and ruminations on the meaning of life and our human mortality.
Six masked Commedia dell'Arte Pantalones, comic and menacing, unmask to act out scenarios, often speaking directly to the audience as narrators, characters or even as the actors themselves. In the absence of the threat of Death, they play games of trying to kill each other, charades in which the others have to guess how someone is pretending to die, and an outraged general delivers a wonderfully ironic diatribe against Braff for ruining war. How can you tell who is the victor, if your soldiers are no longer canon fodder? It's an absolute mockery of the noble art of war: you can't even shoot someone for cowardice!
It is these entertaining twists of absurdity that provide us with some original scope for pondering. A strong cast, a quirky ending and Improbable Theatre's visual style combine to create a performance that, while lacking the exuberant and wicked flamboyance of Shockheaded Peter, should serve to enhance their already considerable international reputation. Richard Katz should be commended for dancing (once quite literally to disco music) on the end of a rope for 90 minutes (he's a bit sore he tells us in a tongue-in-cheek aside, because they've been rehearsing all day and the harness is cutting into his flesh). And Lisa Hammond's diminutive Death should put an end to old hat clichés of the Grim Reaper once and for all.
"The Hanging Man" runs until 21st June
Reviewer: Jackie Fletcher