The best hangman in Britain was able to escort a prisoner to the gallows trapdoor and drop him or her to death in just seven seconds. In the name of being humane, the trapdoor was inconspicuous, the plummet unexpected. These are the kinds of details that scenic and costume designer Anna Fleischle had to research while creating the set for Martin McDonagh’s Hangmen, a play about a local hangman on the day that hanging has been abolished. The comedy, which won the 2016 Olivier Award for Best New Play and enjoyed a sold-out run at London’s Royal Court before transferring to the West End, is now playing Off-Broadway in a co-production with Atlantic Theater Company.
Fleischle knew that abruptly hanging a man (“and not killing him!”) onstage would be difficult, but she’s a designer who thrives on challenges. She’s also an artist who loves to take risks. With Hangmen, she knew that her biggest challenge wasn’t going to be the trapdoor, but the play’s three separate and very different locations. Fleischle and director Matthew Dunster wanted each of the three sets to feel permanent, and for the transitions to new locations come as a surprise.
“The challenge is: How do you remove something that is solid?” Fleischle says. “How do you have three sets that feel like they are the set?” For the world premiere of Hangmen, the scenic designer did something she’d never tried before. At the conclusion of the first scene, Fleischle’s brick-walled prison cell was slowly hoisted above the stage and into the fly space, where it continued to loom for the remainder of the next scene—its underside now the ceiling to an entirely new space.
“I was really excited, but petrified at the same time,” says Fleischle. “Building it into the piece was probably one of the hardest things I’ve gone through in my career.” But every step of the way, Fleischle was able to justify her decision—the design was not only visually impressive, but conceptually important, too.
Transferring the show across the pond has brought on a whole new set of challenges, but the further she progresses in her career, the more confident Fleischle is in taking them on. “[Experience] makes you braver,” says the designer. There’s also her recent Olivier Award win for the design of Hangmen, the “stamp of approval,” as she calls it.
While professionally, the accolade has opened new doors for Fleischle, its greatest significance is on a personal level. A mother to a teenager daughter, the Olivier is proof that her biggest risk of all has paid off: starting a family. “When I started working in the theatre there was this attitude that you had to choose one or the other, but I felt very strongly that I couldn’t make that compromise,” says Fleischle. “The burden of having to prove that it was possible was taken off my shoulders.”