Hangmen star Mark Addy says Martin McDonagh’s new play could inspire the next debate in America about capital punishment.
Addy plays Harry, the second-most-famous executioner in the U.K. on the eve of the nation’s abolition of hanging. Set over 24 hours, Harry struggles to leave his profession behind and accept sweeping change, whatever his own thoughts on execution might be.
“We don't offer any easy answers, but we do throw up a lot of questions—particularly in a country that still has capital punishment,” says the Game of Thrones star. According to the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center, the U.S. carried out 22 executions in 2019 and four so far this year.
The star says Hangmen also questions how much a man can be affected by his job, especially one so brutal as an executioner. Doing that hundreds of times over the years is sure to take a toll, and as a result, Harry is an unlikable character “He’s all the things you try to avoid being in real life. He’s loud, boastful, a bully, and a braggart,” says Addy.
Hangmen, which has been seen Off-Broadway and in the U.K., is set mostly in Harry’s pub. Being an executioner can’t be a full-time job, so a steady source of income is needed that is flexible with hours. Tracie Bennett (End of the Rainbow), who plays Harry's wife, Alice, likens the pub to a certain place where everybody knows your name. “You can tell each character apart and where they are from,” says the Tony nominee. “I’m not saying this is Cheers at all, but it’s got that claustrophobic everybody-knows-everything scenario going on.”
Despite the world’s lived-in feel, the characters are often as much in the dark as the audience. “What’s really fun about Hangmen is how much information is drip-fed and controlled by Mooney,” says Dan Stevens, who plays a mysterious stranger who arrives looking for a room above the pub. Of course, it’s really the playwright who’s filtering out the clues. “McDonagh’s messing with the audience—it is mysterious, very fun, and deeply weird,” says the star, known for his roles in Downton Abbey and Legion, and previously seen on Broadway in The Heiress.
Stevens adds that the playwright’s script has a musicality to it. The verbal tics, accents, repetitions, add up to something akin to a great score of music. Co-star Ewen Bremner, who plays Harry’s disgraced old assistant Syd, agrees. “Every word is like a weapon.”
Bremner says his character is one with a lot of layers, carrying around shame from a job gone wrong (he got fired after some colorful comments about a dead man’s swinging appendage) and anger from a lack of redemption.
“There’s no character on stage you’re not drawn to,” says Gaby French, who plays Harry and Alice’s daughter Shirley. More than just a mopey 15-year-old, Shirley tries to find her voice in a boisterous pub that she’s not even old enough to drink in. French says it’s all thanks to McDonagh and his writing.
The play had a decade-long gestation period—McDonagh first tried to write Hangmen 15 years ago but only got three or four pages on paper. When he came back 10 years later, he did a deep-dive into the world of capital punishment, and it wrote itself quickly. “Because of that, it carries a bit more weight. There’s a bit more flesh on the bones with this one.”
Hangmen begins previews February 28 ahead of a March 19 opening.