Note: This review dates from May 2003 and this production's earlier run at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds.
Edward Braff, commonly known as The Hanging Man according to medieval myth, was an architect who, having built a splendid church, was commissioned to build a magnificent cathedral. But when the cathedral was half built he had a crisis of confidence believing himself and his edifice to be irredeemable failures, he threw a rope over one of its beams, tied a noose and hanged himself.
This is where Improbable Theatre's The Hanging Man, directed, designed and scripted by Phelim McDermott, Lee Simpson and Julian Crouch, begins; because, despite his best intentions, The Hanging Man stubbornly declined to become a hanging corpse. Church and State attempted to bring moral and civil pressure to bear, but they only served in fertilizing the myths that burgeoned around him as the populace at large swore by his miraculous powers. All death, including murder, it was said, disappeared from the community. Finally he died.
It's a charming little myth, but in itself it lacks a bit of beef, so it will come as no surprise that, for this show, the Improbable provenance is all. Behind that brand name stands two-thirds of the team responsible for Shockheaded Peter. Here, the team takes the bare bones of the myth and transform them into a magnificent celebration of theatrical story-telling, that takes sheer delight in ropes and pulleys, flying, traps and backdrops - all the traditional paraphernalia of world theatre down the ages.
The tale is told by a disparate troupe of six players who wander tentatively on, initially overawed by the massive skeleton of the unfinished cathedral. They are clad in white fatigues, with tall white hats and masks, but when they remove the hats and masks they begin to talk amongst themselves and to the audience as a bunch of 21st century actors; this ambivalence imbues the evening, with the actors multi-rolling freely as narrators and characters.
Braff (Richard Katz), who spends most of his evening heroically, if thanklessly, hanging around like an underemployed Peter Pan (in what appears to be a very uncomfortable flying harness) is rejected by Lisa Hammond's stomping and outraged Death because he hasn't given her/it a moment's thought. "You've just used me as a means of escape!" exclaims Death, holding at bay both Heaven and Hell who are pitching for the soul. And for as long as Braff remains adamant that he wants to die, Death denies him: only when he is finally persuaded that he wants to live does the noose do its job.
As a meditation on life and death The Hanging Man doesn't really take us very far, and there are clear signs early in the second half that the improvisation skills honed in radio by McDermott and Simpson are being pushed to pad out a thinnish script. But Crouch's visuals and the physical vigour of the show are truly stunning.
- Ian Watson (Reviewed at West Yorkshire Playhouse)