49 Donkeys Hanged

by Joe Morel

49 Donkeys Hanged Photo Credit Steve Tanner

49 Donkeys Hanged Photo Credit Steve Tanner

“It’s a mud-streaked single act barnyard romp involving an adulterous chainsaw-wielding abattoir worker under a pendulous equine garland, and yet it’s hilarious”

I’d forgive you for thinking donkey hanging sounds like a plot twist in one of those foreign-language police dramas BBC4 loves showing late at night. But it’s not – at least, not really. The title comes from a headline that playwright Carl Grose saw in South Africa in 1999 and, depending on your view of journalism, that’s as good as claiming it’s ‘based on a true story.’

Safe to say, it doesn’t really matter. The play’s staging involves the audience right from the off – a strolling country singer’s narration divides up the scenes; farmer Stanley Bray involves us in his thoughts, bringing a knowing comedy to the character; we overhear stage directions that compel the characters to react. Grose doesn’t break the fourth wall – he deliberately leaves them, alone and unbuilt. How else are you meant to see the row of hanging donkeys, or carcasses on rails?

This is a tragicomedy that spares us the grisly bits. The awful backstory to Stanley and his wife Joy’s bizarre relationship reveals itself, as does the power and questionable morals of Grose himself. Right from the very start, there is the sense that Stanley and Joy are dealing with an aftermath; Stanley’s enquiries about buying donkeys from Slaughterhouse Sally – “there’s still the ongoing problem of supply” – and the surprise arrival of Grose drag up the tragic past for comic effect.

49 Donkeys Hanged Photo Credit Steve Tanner

49 Donkeys Hanged Photo Credit Steve Tanner

49 Donkeys Hanged Photo Credit Steve Tanner

49 Donkeys Hanged Photo Credit Steve Tanner

You don’t feel guilty, laughing at 49 Donkeys. Maybe a little subversive, but Grose isn’t being deliberately graphic or offensive. This is dark comedy achieved through mime and word play, and it’s brilliantly clever. It’s a mud-streaked single act barnyard romp including a chainsaw-wielding abattoir worker under a pendulous equine garland, and yet it’s hilarious, and openly provocative. Stanley’s freakish obsession is a backdrop to bigger questions; a wider provocation that asks questions about loss, grief, obsession and delusion, cruelty, honesty and just what exactly goes into a pasty.

I understand this isn’t a normal play review, but I’m trying to do some kind of justice to Grose. Trying to fit 49 Donkeys, hanged or otherwise, into the usual template would mutilate it beyond understanding. However, the cast deserve huge appreciation. They handle huge leaps in pace and mood, time the comedy to perfection and tread the line of audience interaction without getting into pantomime.

Huge praise must also go to the technical staff, who probably found the whole thing a nightmare. There’s more to creating a farm than throwing some haybales about and hoping some of the audience don’t mind standing for the duration – set changes without curtains and effective lighting when the audience are facing in all directions can’t be easy.

49 Donkeys Hanged Photo Credit Steve Tanner

49 Donkeys Hanged Photo Credit Steve Tanner

49 Donkeys Hanged Photo Credit Steve Tanner

49 Donkeys Hanged Photo Credit Steve Tanner

49 Donkeys Hanged is an interesting, engaging look at the parts of being human that we can’t, or don’t, deal with cleanly. You can argue about how much was imagined or, once Grose appears, how much is a play within a play, but it doesn’t seem to matter. You’ll have found humour in something full of lies, wanton cruelty and emotional pain. Without giving too much away, the ending is short on redemption and long on deceit, but I still left laughing.

You can catch 49 Donkeys Hanged until the 7th April at The Drum at the Theatre Royal Plymouth. Tickets are available here