Martin McDonagh Returns to Broadway With ‘Hangmen’ After Pandemic Pause: ‘I’ve Learned a Few Hard Truths’

Martin McDonagh has a profound feeling of déjà vu these days.

The last time he was in New York, McDonagh was in the thick of Broadway previews for “Hangmen,” his criminally funny look at an executioner-turned-pub owner forced to grapple with his past when capital punishment is made illegal in the U.K. The play was scheduled to open on March 19, 2020, but COVID upended those plans and those of so many other productions, shutting down Broadway for two years. Now, McDonagh is back and remounting the show that was snuffed out before it ever really had a chance, and it’s making him feel a little out of place.

“It’s almost like these two years didn’t happen,” he says. “I’m in the same apartment, doing the same play, walking by the same bodega each morning on the way to rehearsal.”

And he’s talking to one of the same reporters who interviewed him prior to Broadway’s shutdown. At the time, McDonagh, the creator of hit plays like “The Pillowman” and films like “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” was depressed about the state of the theater business. But absence, as you’ll soon see, has made the heart grow fonder.

Some shows suspended their runs in the wake of COVID, but “Hangmen” said it was closing. Why?

The producers could see that things weren’t going to im­­prove anytime in the near future. They knew even if things did open back up, it would be hard to get an audience back in theaters. But as things improved, the producers got more confident. They knew it was a good show.

When we first spoke, you were critical of the commercialization of the theater industry. Have your views changed?

At the time, I was decrying what was happening in London, where there were a lot of plays made from movies, which I don’t understand the point of, and too many jukebox musicals. You can grumble about something, like you do with your family, but when there’s the possibility that it won’t be there anymore, it’s chastening. There’s something very communal about the stage, which is something we’re losing with cinema with everyone watching everything at home on streaming. I’ve been slapped in the face a little, and I’ve learned a few hard truths the last couple of years.

Have you seen any theater since Broadway reopened?

No. I’ll be sort of intrigued as to how it feels with a mask. I’m not really scared of COVID. I’ve had it twice. I had the original COVID, the really cool COVID. I also had it two weeks ago. The new subvariant isn’t as problematic. I barely knew I had it.

With “Hangmen,” are you making a statement about capital punishment?

I’ve got strongly held opinions about it, but I don’t write message plays. I don’t ram my thoughts down an audience’s throat, but I want to tell a story that does debate these issues.

Many of your movies and plays have shocking acts of brutality. How do you approach violence?

I’m sort of a pacifist type, but violence is part of everyday life. I try not to glamorize it, but if you’re writing about capital punishment, you could have a dry and didactic play or you could have something a little scarier. Having things that are more dramatic and disconcerting makes for the kind of theater I want to write. Theater should be dangerous and exciting.

Do you care about reviews?

I care too much. In New York, a review can make or break a show.

Would you ever work for television?

I always insist on a theatrical window. I don’t think I could work in TV really. It’s too much hard work to do ten episodes of something. That’s like doing ten films. I do one film every five years. I also think some of these shows have an idea for one hour and they string it out for ten. All they have to do is hook you in the first episode and then you waste ten hours and they don’t wrap it up and don’t have a good ending. A movie without a good ending isn’t a good movie but they get away with it on TV.

What movies have you liked recently?

I liked “The Lost Daughter” a lot. I liked the acting especially. I don’t feel like its been an amazing year for movies. I liked some documentaries — the Attica one and “Summer of Soul.” “Licorice Pizza” was fun, but I’m a sucker for Paul Thomas Anderson’s darker stuff like “The Master” and “There Will be Blood.” All the films this year felt too long. There were too many movies that didn’t get to the point.

You’ve never adapted one of your plays as a movie. Why?

I like the idea of theater being its own art form. I’ve always had so much of a blanket no,” so people have stopped asking. When I wrote “Beauty Queen of Leenane,” there were offers at the time. But you just let it go, and nobody is going to come back 10 years later. But if I’d said yes, then a decade later, I’d have been living with a bad film of my play.

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