Staged for the first time in 30 years, Tom McGrath and Jimmy Boyle’s stage adaptation of Boyle’s early life and infamous stretch in prison is realised in The Hard Man. Directed by Phillip Breen and featuring scenes of violence and nudity this play isn’t for the fainthearted.
The story of the man in his own words, The Hard Man follows Johnnie Byrne (Alex Fearns) as he graduates from petty criminal to infamous gangland figurehead in the Gorbals area of Glasgow in the 1960s. But his life of crime soon sees him imprisoned for murder, and he finds himself at the mercy of the prison guards, which causes him to take drastic actions.
The image of the Scottish ‘hard man’, a ruthless, violent and often unhinged individual, is now a common sight in the media and it’s a portrayal that many people are now familiar with.
The Hard Man, the story of one of Scotland’s most notorious gangland figures, quickly became known as one of the most controversial plays of the 20th century. Now revived after 30 years, the interest in Boyle has cooled somewhat, but his legacy remains, and while cases of so-called ‘hard men’ still emerge from time to time they just don’t compare with the legendary status of Boyle’s crimes, incarceration and surprising rehabilitation.
While it may seem at first like the play is glamorising the criminal underworld and undermining the crimes that were committed, this isn’t the case, as Byrne’s life of crime is an unhappy one that reaps few rewards other than money and notoriety.
But the most shocking message of the play is the sadistic characterisation, with Byrne being the most sadistic character in the first act, before becoming the victim of cruel prison guards whilst in solitary confinement. It’s the sight of a once powerful man resorting to smear himself with his own excrement to escape the punishment of the guards that makes this play so memorable, and gives it its defiant edge, that shows that a human can never truly be broken.
Ferns is captivating as the legendary character of Byrne, and is supported by a strong cast of interchangeable characters that recreate the harsh realities of growing up in the Gorbals with no prospects, future and little hope. A welcome return to the Scottish theatre scene, Breen’s production of The Hard Man is a theatrical triumph that cannot be missed.