The Hard Man
When Tom McGrath died two years ago, he was commemorated for many things: editor of International Times, counter-culture poet, founder of two Glasgow theatres and musical director for Billy Connolly. Less certain was his legacy as a playwright. Laurel and Hardy, his tribute to Stan and Ollie, was still going strong, but there was a suspicion that much of his work was right for the moment, as befits a jazz man, but didn't necessarily stand the test of time.
The likely exception was The Hard Man and here, in its first major revival in 30 years, we get to see why McGrath is so hard to pin down as a playwright. Based on the life story of Jimmy Boyle, the play's co-writer, who was locked up in the special unit of Barlinnie prison at the time, it is a study of a brutalised man in a brutalising system. The intervening years have brought many more portrayals of gangland thuggery, but this one still stings with its vision of unremitting violence.
What's fascinating is the way McGrath constantly undercuts what could be a conventional bio-drama to create something idiosyncratic. Much of it, in Phillip Breen's handsome production, is set to a live score of cymbal ticks and drum rolls, turning the everyday dialogue into syncopated jazz poetry. The short scenes, which vary from the banal to the lyrical, are like impressionistic fragments of a collage. Even when the drama is at its most intense, a character will turn to the audience, with a magpie-like nod to the musical hall, to explain what's going on.
It is eccentric and a little unwieldy, but also a period piece that makes the period seem a more interesting place to be. As Johnny Byrne, a thinly disguised portrait of Boyle, Alex Ferns is a baby-faced gangster who proves himself unbreakable. What sets this "gentle terror" apart is his intelligence, an ability to see beyond his own situation even as he is taking a blade to the face of some hapless credit defaulter or beating up his girlfriend.
He is not a pleasant character, but neither is the world he inhabits. Without apologising for him, the play shows how a man can be a respected success in a disenfranchised underclass while battling with a state system that seems no less violent in its means. Pummelling and bleak, this testament to the spirit of survival still carries a grim force.
© Mark Fisher 2011
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