The Hard Man is a hard play to come to terms with. It was written in 1977 by playwright Tom McGrath and convicted murderer Jimmy Boyle and follows the life of Glaswegian Johnny Byrne, who starts to steal at a young age and becomes more and more violent until he is sentenced to life in prison for a murder charge, which he denies. It examines his poor background and his hard life but, as Byrne tells us, these are not good enough reasons to explain his animalistic behaviour and bloodlust. He defies social structures and authority and becomes part of a brutal penal system, but Byrne is still a vicious sadist and it is difficult to know why.
There are plenty of polarities in the production: the intense second act, set entirely within the prison, jars with the less interesting first act that sees Byrne and his associates growing up and turning to crime. Some of the fight scenes are unconvincing hand slaps, while others are genuinely frightening – especially one moment when Byrne, lying on the floor after attacking a prison guard, gets a fierce kick to the nose and flecks of blood and spit go flying across the stage.
Many of the characters are not very well rounded, largely due to the writing, but Martin Docherty as Byrne, Ross F Sutherland as cruel prison officer Paisley and Ross Dunsmore as a fellow prisoner offer some superb performances. Docherty is particularly fearsome and fearless, his gaunt face and pale skin looking toughened by the biting Glaswegian cold, his clenched jaw and cold eyes making him seem very much the hard man. Sutherland plays an equally psychotic guard, questioning the audience’s assumptions about who are the good guys and who are bad.
The script and the production pull no punches and, in fact, it is at the extremes that the production works best: Byrne and Paisley outdoing each other in pure, unbridled, throbbing veined insanity, along with the more graphic and violent scenes. But it is difficult to know what the play is trying to do – to shock, certainly, and it achieves this. Weaker parts are compensated for by very strong moments, and on balance it is easy to forgive a slow first act after a gripping and chilling finale.
Photos: Robert Boulton
The Hard Man is on at the Finborough Theatre until 18th March 2014, for further information or to book visit here.