Who is Annie without her red dress? Or Eva without her balcony? It’s the Broadway creator’s job to transport audiences into the world of a show, whether in Depression-era New York or outside the Casa Rosada.
In Broadway by Design, BroadwayWorld shines a light on this Broadway season’s stellar designs, show after show. Today, we continue the series with Tony-nominated Anna Fleischle, who acted as set designer for Martin McDonagh’s The Hanged Man.
In his little pub in the north of England in 1965, Harry is something of a local celebrity. But what must England’s second-best hangman do the day they abolished hanging? Among petty journalists and pub-goers, people are dying to hear Harry’s reaction to the news when a scheming stranger, Mooney, from London – with a very different wardrobe and motive – walks into their world.
Where did the design process for Anna’s Hangmen begin? “When I read Martin McDonagh’s play, it was clear to me that the transition from scene one to scene two had to be dramatic, metaphorical and surprising,” she explained. “It’s so unusual to have an opening scene that’s only 5 minutes long but also incredibly shocking and tragic at the same time. The visual journey from the jail cell to the pub had to tell its own story. So I immerse the audience in limbo for a time until prison rises like a thought in the air and becomes fate overhanging for the rest of the play – as if the action of the first scene never quite leaves .
“Even with the third location, I knew we didn’t have time for an ordinary scene change, but I had to keep the play flowing. Likewise, if you managed to pull off an interesting scene change in a show, then it’s impossible to do something ordinary – you have to keep the surprise! So, in the very small footprint of the stage, I managed to find another surprising location for the cafe – seemingly impossible and floating like a bubble in space – but full of atmosphere with the rain falling outside and the windows covered in condensation mist and years of grease stuck in the curtains.”
Anna explained that the tone of her design was based on reality. “I was certain what the room needed was total realism. Places we instantly understand and feel. From the wet stains and fingerprints of the smelly Victorian stone prison cell cigarettes and yellowed wallpaper in the pub or grease in the It’s when the audience feels completely at home in the setting that Martin’s writing sings and the unease and menace of the story creep into us.
The biggest challenge of putting hanged men? “It turned out to be incredibly difficult to hang people without killing them. I can’t say too much about it but it’s very technical, fine-tuned, requires a lot of courage and training from the actor and a lot of time and space to rehearse and for everyone to know exactly what they are supposed to do and when.I have researched in great detail the method used in Britain at that time.
“There was a very specific pattern to the process – the cell and the prisoner’s proximity to the gallows were always the same and Albert Pierrepoint had the procedure up to a maximum of 12 seconds from the time he walked through the door. until the time the prisoner was dead. In my design I combined the adjacent prisoner cell and the overhead cell, but other than that we pretty much do what would have happened (with a few security measures in place)…”
Hangmen is currently airing on Broadway at the John Golden Theater.