Chances are excellent you won’t associate David Threlfall, now holding forth as the bar-owner with the belligerent bluster at the Golden Theater in Martin McDonagh’s Hangmen, with his previous Broadway appearance. For that matter, you probably won’t see a connection between his slightly smoldering Playbill photo and the hefty, mustachioed bloke he puts on stage in Hangmen.
That would be Harry Wade, “the second most famous hangman in England” in 1964 when hanging was abruptly and summarily banished in the U.K. Threlfall’s Harry is light years removed from Smike, the battered and rickets-ridden schoolboy who died in the arms of Roger Rees some 41 years ago in The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, Broadway’s first $100-ticket attraction.
Both portrayals produced the same effect for Threlfall: a well-earned Tony Award nomination.
Ever so briefly, he returned to New York audiences once more—in Roundabout’s 1996 revival of The Rehearsal, a dark comedy by Jean Anouilh. For that, he suspects he just slicked his hair back to play the count in charge. His main incentive to do the show was the fact that Rees, a favorite playing partner who passed away in 2015, was aboard. “Such a lovely man, Roger. His death came as quite a shock to me.”
In the years since, Threlfall busied himself with plays in the West End and TV fare, all the while harboring a hope of returning to Broadway—and for years holding a green card should that return arise.
For every role he took on he made a habit of searching the text to find some clue of how to physically present himself. Thus he both consistently proves to be visually surprising and never repeats himself. Dominic Dromgoole, artistic director of the Globe, has dubbed him our next Alec Guinness: “He’s a funny mixture of a star actor and a character actor. He takes character acting to such super high-definition accuracy that it becomes a star performance in itself.”
Threlfall’s approach was formed quickly on graduating from Manchester Polytechnic School of Drama, when he auditioned for director Mike Leigh (currently enjoying a Film at Lincoln Center retrospective). Leigh cast him as a bashful funeral-home employee in a 1977 TV play called The Kiss of Death and, in the process, Threlfall says, “I picked up the knack of creating characters—to use a Mike Leigh word—organically. For me, it’s about inhabiting other people.”
Among these “other people” are the astronomer in the court of Cate Blanchett’s Elizabeth: The Golden Age and John Lennon’s uncle in Nowhere Boy, two of his eight films.
In recent years, television characters took up much of his time—one, especially: Frank Gallagher on Channel 4’s series Shameless, the sorry father figure William H. Macy recreated on Showtime.
He was otherwise occupied when the London production of Hangmen first came up—it went on to win the Olivier for Best Play of 2016 without him. But when the Broadway proposition was introduced, he pounced on it without apology. “I found a line in the play I felt I could build a character on, so I went to the director, Matthew Dunster, with it, and we came to an agreement,” Threlfall says. “I don’t want to say what that line was because I would like to keep some mystery about my creative process.”
But the upshot of this is that Harry Wade is now a barrel-chested hulk of a man who dominates the play with effortless authority. His name, in fact, is an amalgam of the first and last names of two of England’s most famous hangmen who, freshly fired by the government, became pub proprietors, basking in the luxury of customers wanting to see and shake hands with a hangman.
Years of lurid Fleet Street accounts of crimes and punishments which the 52-year-old McDonagh grew up on have shaped and fueled this piece of theater. He remembers all too well that the abolition of hanging was prompted by a couple of conspicuous miscarriages of justice in the ‘60s.
One case-in-point was a 1962 rape-murder graphically covered in the tabloids. It had two key suspects, and many believed the wrong man (Hanratty in real life, Hennessy in the play) was hanged. Seven years later, Hanratty became a posthumous cause celebre for John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who reviewed the evidence in a documentary for Apple Films called Did Britain Murder Hanratty? When his body was exhumed to check the DNA, it was discovered he was innocent.
McDonagh toys with the idea that the other suspect was probably the guilty party. On the second anniversary of Hennessy’s hanging, a combustible, quick-tempered stranger shows up at the bar run by Harry Wade, his wife and their 15-year-old daughter, He lures the latter away from the nest, and, when she fails to return, the barflies organize an unofficial, lawless “necktie party.”
Yanks can expect a darker version of Hangmen than what director Dunster delivered to the Brits six years ago, according to Threlfall. “In England, the laughs were plentiful, but here that aspect is played down. Matthew gives it a more serious reading and lets the laughs fall where they may.”
McDonagh was an obsessive overseer for this change in tone, informing Dunster early on that he would come to every rehearsal and that he would not change a word. “Actually,” Threlfall postscripts, “he did change quite a few words to make the dialect clearer to Americans.”
The first most famous hangman in England contributes an 11 o’clock cameo to the proceedings, giving the bar patrons a whiff of his hair to see if it smells of Brylcreem and not, as his No. 2 rival tells the press, Death. McDonagh calls this guy by his real name: Albert Pierrepoint (1905-1992).
As Britain’s most prolific hangman, Pierrepoint executed 400 people, half of those Nazi war criminals. But he also executed Timothy Evans for a murder committed by serial killer John Christie. That case became the 1971 movie 10 Rillington Place (with Richard Attenborough and John Hurt), and in 2005 Pierrepoint got his own film, Pierrepoint: The Last Hangman.
In the spring of 2018, when Hangmen tested the Broadway waters from McDonagh’s usual Off-Broadway base, the Atlantic Theater Company, Pierrepoint was played by Grease 2’s Maxwell Caulfield. In this current edition, he is imposingly dispatched by a towering and intimidating John Hodgkinson, who casts a shadow even over the six-foot Threlfall.
Hodgkinson also understudied the lead role and came in handy when Threlfall came down with Covid. “I could have done without that,” the 68-year-old actor readily admits. “It was not a mild case, either. Covid really laid me low, and it took me quite a while to get back to fighting form.
“But the audiences in New York have been wonderful and welcoming. It has been very gratifying for us Brits to see all these masked faces peering up at us, taking in our play. I think it’s a real tribute to theater-going tenacity here, and it has been great for me to encounter all that again.”
Hangmen, the most literal and advanced reach of McDonagh’s well-known gallows humor, is set to exit Broadway on Saturday, June 18, six days after the Tonys are passed out. It’s up for five. In addition to Best Actor (Threlfall), it is contending for Best Play, Best Featured Actor (Game of Thrones’ Alfie Allen), Best Lighting Design (Joshua Carr) and Best Scenic Design (Anna Fleischle).