'The Quare Fellow' back in town

 

ARTSCAPE:THE QUARE FELLOW was Brendan Behan’s breakthrough play, writes Sara Keating, marking his first journey back to England, where he had spent three years at borstal after being arrested on a mission to blow up Liverpool’s docks.

It receives a revival next week at the New Theatre, in Temple Bar in Dublin, in a production directed by Ronan Wilmot that pays tribute to the pioneering work of the Pike Theatre in staging the work for the first time, in 1954.

The Quare Fellowwas Behan’s first stage play, and it premiered at the tiny 50-seat theatre on Herbert Lane, which was run by Alan Simpson and Carolyn Swift. The Quare Fellowdrew on Behan’s experiences in prison, tuning into contemporary political debates about judicial hanging, which was still legal in Ireland and England at the time. But it also marked a radical experiment with the theatrical form. The Quare Fellowof the title, the condemned man, is the central character, but he never appears on stage. Behan himself provided the voice of the unseen prisoner who can be heard singing throughout the play (“And that old triangle / Went jingle jangle / Along the banks of the Royal Canal”).

The play had a huge impact on the audiences that squeezed into the Pike, but conservative Irish theatre culture was unwilling to absorb the bawdy political work of the openly republican working-class writer. The Maverick director Joan Littlewood took the play up, and it received its English premiere in 1956, running for more than six months in the West End. It would have continued indefinitely had it not been for the unusually large cast – the script lists 28 parts.

Behan himself made an enormous impact in London, too, infamously appearing on the BBC in a state of unutterable inebriation. (He found it difficult to speak.) He died as a result of his excessive lifestyle in 1964.

Behan’s work is rarely produced in Ireland. The highly theatrical blend of dialogue and song and dance and the complex historical issues that they raise can be difficult for modern audiences to identify with. But a Behan play is unlike any other Irish work, and the New Theatre’s production is an unusual opportunity to be reminded of his genius in gestation.