As the writer of darkly funny plays including The Beauty Queen of Leenane and The Pillowman and the filmmaker behind black comedies such as Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Martin McDonagh has earned a reputation for gallows humor. And for his latest Broadway outing, he’s bringing actual gallows.
McDonagh’s first play on Broadway since the success of the BAFTA- and Golden Globe–winning movie Three Billboards, Hangmen is a 1960s-set comic thriller that centers on Great Britain’s second-best executioner, Harry, and the mysterious stranger who shows up in the pub that Harry owns with his wife in Oldham, England. After successful London runs at the Royal Court and on the West End, plus a well-reviewed Off-Broadway engagement that won Hangmen the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Foreign Play, Hangmen arrives on Broadway this spring with a cast that includes Dan Stevens (Legion, Downton Abbey), Tracie Bennett (End of the Rainbow), and Mark Addy (Game of Thrones).
It’s a play that gives McDonagh the chance to take on a subject he’s long intended to tackle in his work. “I always wanted to write something about the abolition of the death penalty in the U.K., tied to some of those final miscarriages of justice that prompted the desire to end capital punishment [in 1965],” says the playwright. “The idea of going to your death for something you haven’t done is terrifying, and there’s lots of room for major drama in it.
“But I didn’t want to write anything very heavy or didactic,” he continues. “I was interested in writing a sort of thriller, almost, in the guise of plays like Sleuth or Deathtrap, and also make it a very funny play. A laugh a minute, not just darkness. It took me about 15 years to work out how to do that.”
After the Hollywood triumphs of Three Billboards, which nabbed seven Oscar nominations and won one each for stars Frances McDormand and Sam Rockwell, McDonagh could have easily opted to make another film. Hangmen, however, was a story he specifically wanted to tell on stage.
“I just knew,” he said of his decision to make a play rather than a movie. “Some stories are more cinematic than others, but some use just one or two interior locations as a benefit to the story. That’s what most of my plays are. I like to have the room that the characters are in be just as important, in a stylistic way, as the characters themselves. I enjoy the claustrophobia of a story being set in one room.”
But even though Hangmen takes place almost entirely in the taproom of a pub, don’t mistake it for boring. “I like things to actually happen on stage,” he says. “I like excitement and physical drama. There should be twists and turns and proper storytelling. I want something dramatic or even something a bit scary. That should be part of the joy of going to a play.”
As a four-time Tony nominee and Oscar winner, McDonagh is a regular on Broadway — and it holds a special place in his heart. “Even as a kid it was always my dream just to visit New York, much less to work here,” he recalls. “That’s never changed. And I find that being on Broadway is like being part of the theater family. The actors tend to go to the other shows and hang out afterwards, and I love that community aspect of it. Besides, the aim for me is always to go to the highest level with all my plays, and Broadway is that.”
Still, he’s not sure how a comedy about the death penalty will play stateside. “Back in the U.K., the death penalty is a relic of history, but here it’s not,” he says. “It’ll be interesting to see how audiences take it. I still can’t get my head around the idea that it still goes on in a modern democracy, but people have different opinions.”
Although McDonagh has a well-earned reputation for surprising and shocking audiences with the sharp edges of his humor, it’s never his intention to stir controversy.
“I always think that everyone would share my sense of humor about the darkness of the subjects that I deal with,” McDonagh says with a laugh. “My stuff is quite close to the bone and edgy, I guess, but I’ve never written anything to try to offend anybody or shock them. I guess my sense of humor is on the darker side, but then I think it has to be, these days. If you don’t laugh, you’ll cry.”
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