The Quare Fellow
Abbey Theatre, Dublin
“In the female prison there lie 70 women, and it’s in there with them that I’d like to dwell.”
This stirring trot-around for a venerable warhorse, seen first at the Abbey in 1956, makes great play with that line from The Auld Triangle. How could it not? Tom Creed has elected to cast Brendan Behan’s The Quare Fellow, a prison comedy inclined towards uneasy death, entirely with female and nonbinary actors. Pronouns have not been altered. A women’s prison is still elsewhere in this universe. Even if there weren’t a bit of swagger to the performances – at least one crotch is grabbed – we would essentially remain within the all-male environment of earlier productions.
The effect is teasingly ambiguous. Decades of female prison yarns such as Orange Is the New Black and (why not?) Prisoner: Cell Block H have sold us on a dynamic not so different from that in the fictional lads’ jug. After a bit of squinting and some psychological recalibration, your average audience member will quickly cease to notice the gender alterations. There is an opportunity here to ponder what the director describes as Behan’s sexual openness, but none of that gets in the way of the indestructible chatter.
The story is familiar. The inmates of an urban jail undergo different stresses when one fellow prisoner is condemned to hang and another is sentenced to life imprisonment. Competing voices clash on the landings. The old soak Dunlavin is appalled at having to share air with an apparent gay inmate (“bit of an intellectual”) but reasonably relaxed about having a murderer just down the corridor. In the sort of inversion the author loved, we meet pompous inmates who think “hanging is too good for them” and warders who are uneasy about the death penalty.
It is difficult to single out individual performances from the consistently excellent cast of 15, but the veterans Barbara Brennan, as Dunlavin, and Gina Moxley, as her mate “Neighbour”, dominate without any showboating. Clare Barrett makes something effective of a conflicted warder. There are no weak links.
The Quare Fellow is very much rooted in its time. Deeply concerned with the mechanics and hypocrisies of the death penalty, the piece is a mine of gruesome trivia. Last letters to loved ones are flung in the grave. The condemned man, when exercising, has to be steered away from where prisoners are ominously digging. But, as the production goes on, the much discussed, unseen (to us) Quare Fellow – he who is destined for the rope – takes on a more generalised embodiment of death.
That sense of universal foreboding is emphasised by Paul O’Mahony’s looming set and Stephen Dodd’s moody lighting. We begin on a prison corridor that, for a more lyrical second act, pulls within itself and twists around to give as a bleak exterior with a grave at the audience’s end. The word “Silence” yells at the top of the stage throughout. There was a lot of that about in the Ireland of the 1950s.
A hugely enjoyable romp that packs sombre reflection in with profane laughter.
The Quare Fellow continues at the Abbey Theatre, Dublin 1, until Saturday, January 27th, 2024