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‘I think the Abbey knew I might do something a little bit queer with this Quare Fellow’

Tom Creed’s new production of Brendan Behan’s play – the first at the Abbey for almost 40 years – features a cast of all female and nonbinary actors

More than 20 men – prisoners and warders alike – are gathered in Mountjoy Prison. By the end of the night a murderer in their midst will be hanged at the gallows. The Quare Fellow, Brendan Behan’s 1954 play, is in many ways distinctly of its time, set in a midcentury Ireland where capital punishment was legal and homosexuality was not. Now, 100 years after Behan’s birth, a new production at the Abbey Theatre, directed by Tom Creed, offers a distinctly fresh take.

The Quare Fellow was first performed at the Pike Theatre in Dublin, under the direction of Alan Simpson. The Abbey produced a version two years later – but the last time it appeared at the national theatre was in 1984 (just six years before capital punishment was fully abolished in Ireland).

“I think Caitriona McLaughlin, the Abbey artistic director, was asking me to look at the play with the knowledge that I might do something a little bit queer with this Quare Fellow,” Creed says when we meet during rehearsals. The production, which opens next week, stays true to Behan’s text but puts a twist on the casting: all 22 male roles are played by 15 female or nonbinary actors. They range from established names such as Gina Moxley and Amy Conroy to younger performers like Taylor McClaine and Ebby O’Toole-Acheampong.

“The brief was not to do it a certain way but maybe to think about it in a way… that’s also thinking about the subversive nature of Behan, where now there’s a greater sense of Behan’s bisexuality and his sexual openness,” Creed says. (Ulick O’Connor was one of several biographers to say the writer was bisexual, though Behan’s widow, Beatrice, rejected his claim in a letter to The Irish Times in 1970.) He also thought about the “very, very masculine world of the play, in which there is homophobia and sexism that is of the time – but, actually, we would be kind to our own time if we were saying those things don’t exist at the moment as well”.

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Creed, who has worked with Irish National Opera, the Gate Theatre, Thisispopbaby and Rough Magic, says that, in its approach, his production is “looking at this society that Behan depicts in which everyone is performing roles and everyone is acting out different kinds of masculinities”. Inspired by drag kings, as well as by the history of male impersonation and cross-dressing in theatre, he was “interested in a performance style where we were seeing the truth of the underlying performer and of the character at the same time, and of a way where we can engage completely, wholeheartedly, truthfully with the truth of the character, but also potentially be ironic about that.”

Creed, who wanted to be “playful and serious, and a little bit subversive and in the spirit of the music hall that Behan loved”, has also borrowed thematic approaches from contemporary sources such as the musical Chicago and the TV series Prisoner: Cell Block H and Orange Is the New Black.

“We’re trying to find a way to let the play resonate with all of the situations in which women and nonbinary people, and people of all genders, are incarcerated and institutionalised, now and throughout history,” Creed says, adding that he’s building on Behan’s text respectfully while recognising the times we live in now. “In a way we’re doing the play as written; we’re not changing anyone’s pronouns. It’s about being playful and about being theatrical, and it’s about transformation,” he says. “But it’s also about the truth of the performers and who they are, and how their bodies and voices move.” He wanted to lean into Behan’s language, finding the characters in the “very strong, robust, specific way that Behan writes. And to tap into the humanity, the humour and the truth of all of these characters.”

Gina Moxley points out that women played a very minor role in the original world of The Quare Fellow. “They didn’t even appear,” she says. “They were just summoned up in lecherous memory or ogled at through a window.” (A 1962 screen version, directed by Arthur Dreifuss, put a new female character in a more central role – but as a love interest.) “In our day-to-day rehearsals the fact that we are a female and nonbinary cast barely gets a mention. We are simply people doing a play,” she says. “There are many comforts in playing these men – not least the clothing. It is a great freedom to be allowed to be lairy, dangerous, garrulous and quarrelsome. And not have to be nice or make bloody tea.”

Taylor McClaine, who graduated from the Lir Academy in 2021, says that “as a nonbinary actor I am always aware of gender when I am in any new workplace, let alone a rehearsal room. Whether it’s being tokenised or underestimated, there are certain challenges that trans actors have to face that our cis colleagues don’t… My main aim on any project is to be treated as a human first and actor second – anything else is my own business.” Working with “such a stellar range of talented actors is a blessing”, they say, adding that “to find peers in amongst other trans actors is a luxury I don’t often have access to”.

Behan, who grew up on Russell Street in Dublin, based the Quare Fellow himself – the murderer condemned to be executed, who is never seen on stage – on a cellmate from his own time in Mountjoy, where he was imprisoned in 1942 after being found guilty of the attempted murder of two Garda detectives. The Auld Triangle, which is sung in the play by an unseen character in solitary confinement, and expresses some of the writer’s feelings about incarceration, will play a big role in the production, according to Creed, who calls the song “a lament and act of protest”.

The Quare Fellow was associated with controversy in its early years, although not necessarily because of the play itself. During its run in 1956 at the Theatre Royal in Stratford East, the pioneering British producer Joan Littlewood’s London venue, Behan did a drunken interview with Malcolm Muggeridge on the television programme Panorama. His behaviour, which reportedly included the first use of the F-word on the BBC, contributed to his reputation abroad for inebriation.

This new production of The Quare Fellow has another resonance for Irish theatre. In 2015. the Waking the Feminists campaign put out a rallying call for change in response to the Abbey’s male-dominated centenary programme. Moxley was one of those who spoke at a public meeting on the issue. There were some immediate effects, but change of the level needed to dismantle entrenched behaviour can be slow, requiring deliberate and thoughtful action.

In having cast a traditionally male play in this new way, does Creed see it as a sign of evolution in Irish theatre? “I hope so,” he says, noting that the Abbey has diversified its output since 2015 but also that The Quare Fellow nonetheless was written by a man and is being directed by a man. “Waking the Feminists was a moment that we should not or cannot ignore, and shouldn’t go back on,” he says. McClaine adds, “Equality and equity within the arts, and especially theatre, are progressing at a slow pace, but it would be remiss of me to not acknowledge that progress has got me to where I am now. I feel very grateful to be here.”

For Creed, moving forward means not smashing the canon but looking at how theatre-makers approach it. “We need to find ways of doing it that don’t mean we go back to old ways,” he says. As Moxley adds, making an impact can be as simple as following through on one decision, in this case the female and nonbinary casting. “What’s remarkable is that it only took a simple decision to allow this turnabout to happen,” she says.

Creed says that he’s not trying to tell people his approach to The Quare Fellow is the only way to do it, and that, although audiences will encounter his take at the Abbey, “the play really happens in the audience’s imagination”. Plus, “lots of people have an idea of Brendan Behan and the character of Brendan Behan,” he says. “And I hope they’ll find things to surprise them in encountering this play.”

The Quare Fellow opens at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin, on Tuesday, November 28th, and runs until Saturday, January 27th