One of County Derry-Londonderry’s most enduring folk stories is that of John 'Half Hung' McNaghten. Earning that moniker because one hanging just wasn’t enough to kill him, the Irishman has gone down as one of the most fascinating figures in North West history, having lived a life of recklessness and shameless opportunism before making his way to the gallows, convicted of murder.
What possessed McNaghten to kill his lover – the beautiful heiress of the Prehen Estate, Mary Ann Knox, exactly 250 years ago – remains something of a mystery. But McNaghten's dramatic demise has ensured that his story has hung around (no pun intended) for a quarter of a millennia.
With Wood Of The Crows – named in honour, for want of a better word, of McNaghten’s pistol, which, when fired, would send flocks of crows fleeing from Prehen Woods – playwright Stan McGowan and his cast have taken an open-minded approach to the question of MacNaghten's motive for murder. It is up to us, the audience, to consider the facts and come to our own conclusions.
The tension to come is slyly hinted in Derry~Londonderry's Playhouse Theatre by the off-stage strains of Vivaldi’s 'Vertigo' as the audience take their seats. You could call Wood of the Crows a thriller – and, sure enough, it’s edge-of-your-seat stuff for the most part – but the thrills and chills are dialogue-driven. This is a wordy play that explores human behaviour through story, and it succeeds in an understated and well-acted manner.
The Knox family – patriarch Andrew (Bill Waters), his wife, Honoria (Helen McLaughlin) and their son, George (Eaman Craig) – have welcomed McNaghten (Conor Barr) into their house, despite his questionable reputation.
While Honoria is initially willing to give McNaghten a chance, Andrew and George are less accommodating. And McNaghten’s eventual infatuation with – and marriage to – the teenage Mary Ann (played the National Youth Theatre’s Sinead Sharkey) leads to outrage, threats of violence and much drama on all sides.
Wood Of The Crows can be enjoyed simply as a family drama or a tragic love story, but upon closer inspection it reveals itself to be far more than that. McGowan presents the story in almost forensic detail, examining the differing traits and qualities of all the characters involved in considerable depth, which allows the audience a window into all of their souls.
Take Mary Ann, for example. The most compelling character in the play apart from McNaghten himself, it’s easy to dismiss her love for the rascal as a little ridiculous. Initially one wonders what on earth would convince her to care about such a fiery suitor, especially after he 'tricks' her into marrying him. But, with the help of the McGowan's punchy and expository script, we soon realise just how much McNaghten has taken advantage of her naivety.
Then we have Andrew and George’s situations to consider. There’s the theme of a father's attachment to his daughter and the difficulties he has in letting her go, especially when he has such a very low opinion of her lover. Andrew and George also find themselves butting up against another alpha male, and we explore the difficulties that both men share in adjusting to his presence in their own ancestral house? Both themes are compellingly explored.
The women in the play are equally well served. Honoria’s changing attitude toward McNaghten, for instance, is convincingly drawn, and Marie Dunn makes a memorable second half cameo as Aunt Angel Knox. Aunt Angel’s take down of McNaghten is a highlight, just ahead of his speech prior to his hanging.
Despite everything, McNaghten remains enigmatic in the end, which is, presumably, exactly what McGowan intended. This is a play that is grim, at times, but one which is smart enough to break the tension with a bit of levity here and there.
Wood Of The Crows runs in the Playhouse Theatre, Derry-Londonderry, from November 17 – 19. Excerpts of the play will be performed in Prehen House itself on November 21 and 23, with proceedings in aid of Friends of Prehen.