“The Hardman” is in fact a Glasgow expression. People will say of someone, “He fancies himself as a bit of a hardman.” Some people act as if they are hardmen, others are hardmen – individuals totally committed to violence as a way of life and identity.”
- Tom McGrath on The Hard Man
Forty years old this year, McGrath’s famous examination of “the most violent man in Scotland” is a landmark in Scottish theatre. Originally staged at the Traverse in May 1977, under the direction of Assistant Director Peter Lichtenfels, (during the memorable tenure of Artistic Director Chris Parr), The Hard Man charts the rise and fall of Glaswegian gangster Johnny Byrne, and is based on the life of notorious Scottish criminal Jimmy Boyle, (also the subject of John Mackenzie’s A Sense of Freedom), with whom McGrath collaborated on the script.
“I worked with Jimmy Boyle for several months in the Special Unit, Barlinnie Prison to produce The Hard Man. We discussed his life in detail. Sometimes I would have parts of the developing script to read him, sometimes he would have scenes for me – pub and cell block conversations, rich in character and zany underworld language. How do you cut someone with a razor? He would demonstrate, showing me how he held his body, how he moved...”
- Tom McGrath on writing The Hard Man, Time Out
In addition to his dialogue with Boyle, McGrath immersed himself in research. Visiting several Scottish prisons, he spoke with staff at various levels, toured the facilities and observed inmates involved in art therapy, all the time absorbing as much of the atmosphere of prison life as possible. He also started to draw inspiration from other sources, including the poems of musician Lindsay Cooper, (whose work McGrath published), elements of which appear in the finished play.
“I was just finding things and dramatising their moment to moment reality.”
- Tom McGrath on writing The Hard Man
Fascinated by the audience response to the comical physicality of his previous play, Laurel and Hardy, McGrath was inspired to tackle the savagery of The Hard Man by recasting slapstick, stripping the comedy away to present only the stylised violence. Prescribing rhythm and repetition in the dialogue, on-stage nudity and a live percussive score to bring a primal, ritualistic energy to the show, and deploying Boyle’s crucial input to add the terrifying authenticity, McGrath’s exploration of the archetypal Scottish “hardman” was a powerful, shocking experience for audiences of the time. Nevertheless, it was universally embraced, transferring to the ICA, touring internationally and becoming one of the most successful Traverse shows ever.
“I can only report that I have experienced the most moving play of the year and that the entire production sets standards in this sort of social, realistic drama that I cannot imagine being matched in a long time.”
- Michael Coveney on The Hard Man, Financial Times
Significantly, our presentation of this famously masculine play will put a new spin on Scottish gender and identity, as it will star a woman in the title role. At EIFF 2017, Scottish actress Kate Dickie will be The Hard Man.
(Header image: Original 'The Hard Man' production image from 1977 Image copyright Glasgow University Library)