By Chiara Pannozzo
It couldn’t be described as anything less than a meeting of minds when celebrated Glasgow playwright Tom McGrath collaborated with revered Glasgow gangster Jimmy Boyle to pen a fictionalised version of the gangsters life. Having originally premiered to great acclaim at the Traverse Theatre in the late 1970s, the 2011 interpretation aims to be an increasingly powerful production. Directed by Phillip Breen, whose previous works include The Caretaker and The Shadow of a Gunman, The Hard Man is destined to have you re-evaluate your perceptions of what a gangsters life truly entails.
The play itself is based in and around Clydeside, charting a series of events that support Johnnie Byrne (Alex Ferns) in his quest to make a living from a life of crime. The set design was simple, yet undeniably representative of Glasgow in the 1960s. Two tenement blocks, complete with the obligatory sandstone and sash windows, reminiscent of what still stands on the streets of Glasgow today, provided the backdrop for the actors to guide us through Johnnie Byrne’s life. The lighting throughout the first half of the production was characteristic of unsavoury activity, using dark tones to create an atmosphere of unrest. In contrast, what came after the interval was a cavernous stage, with lighting that was stark and bright, conveying a sense of examining Johnnie’s life, where the luminous strip lights left no room to hide from reality.
Ferns gave a memorable performance as the gangster, more locally referred to as ‘The Gentle Terror’. His movements and pitch were entirely fluid and his portrayal of an animalistic gangster was terrifyingly convincing. Supported largely by his two brothers, (Nicky Elliot and Iain Robertson) in the first half of the production, Elliot and Robertson showcased their talents by taking on a number of roles throughout the production, at times abandoning their sibling duties to become the very people intent on ensuring justice was done.
There were a number of impressive monologues throughout The Hard Man, where the audience were given an insight into what the characters were really thinking. Through his monologues, Ferns tried on a number of occasions to justify his behaviour, challenging us to see the world through his eyes. A number of scenes were performed in slow motion, where the actors demonstrated their ability not only to speak in Glasgow tongue, but to slow down the swing of a punch, and the thrust of a kick.
The Hard Man is a production that leaves you questioning your values. Very few of us come into contact with the themes of violence and hardship that run through this play, leaving us ill equipped to cope with them. However, in a society which is becoming increasingly immersed in such difficulties, productions like The Hard Man are less likely to age. The themes in this production are as relevant now as they were in the 1970s, and when acted out by the quality that was on stage tonight, this production could be considered timeless.
The Hard Man is on until 9th April at the King’s Theatre.