Borstal boy

Brendan Behan was a hard-drinking criminal who died at 41. He also wrote 'The Quare Fellow', a satire on capital punishment that created a sensation in 1956. Now Kathy Burke is staging a revival, says Daniel Rosenthal. Can lightning strike twice?
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In Changing Stages, Richard Eyre and Nicholas Wright's acclaimed survey of 20th-century theatre, it was called "an overwhelming indictment of capital punishment without a hint of piety or sentimentality: a beautiful play, unjustly forgotten". It was first produced in 1954 but hasn't been staged in London since 1956. Now Oxford Stage Company and director Kathy Burke are rescuing Brendan Behan's The Quare Fellow from decades of neglect.

Set in Dublin's Mountjoy Prison and closely based on Behan's stint there in the 1940s for attempted murder, it stands as the theatrical definition of gallows humour: a consistently, sometimes outrageously funny and sobering portrait of the 24 hours leading up to the hanging of the "quare fellow" (Irish jail slang for a condemned man), who has murdered his brother. "It's a real documentation of prison life as Behan had lived it," says Burke, whose Irish-born father, Paddy, introduced her to Behan's writing when she was a teenager. "A lot of people [who know of Behan's Republican past] make the mistake of thinking the play is going to be IRA-based and political, but it isn't. It's just extraordinarily humane."

At the time, it was also extraordinarily pertinent. For The Quare Fellow's original audiences, judicial hanging was a vivid reality, not part of history. Murderer Michael Manning, the last man to be hanged in Ireland, died in April 1954; seven months later, The Quare Fellow, which had been rejected by the Abbey and Gate theatres, was produced at the Pike Theatre Club, one of the first of Dublin's "fringe" venues. Its co-founders, Carolyn Swift and Alan Simpson, directed the play and employed what Simpson would later call "a little patient bullying" to persuade Behan to make "the necessary alterations" to the script and abandon his original title, The Twisting of Another Rope - not because it was inappropriately emotive for a play devoid of polemic, but to save money on newspaper advertisements that charged by the line.

"The production was greeted mainly with critical acclaim," recalled Simpson, who went on to run the Abbey and died in 1980, "but as the cast was large and the accommodation small [only 50 seats] we could only afford to run for four weeks." His attempts to arrange a new production at a larger Dublin venue foundered, partly because of "political and social prejudices against Behan", who had joined a Republican youth movement aged nine, been sent to borstal for attempted sabotage in England at 16 and then, in 1942, been jailed for 14 years (subsequently commuted) for the attempted murder of a Special Branch detective.

With Simpson's plans stalling, an impatient Behan sent the play to Joan Littlewood at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. In her memoirs, she recalled receiving "a tattered bundle ... The typing frequently went careering off the page, there were beer stains and repetitions, but you'd hardly read five pages before you recognised a great entertainer ... you never stopped laughing."

Behan came over to England for Littlewood's Theatre Workshop production, which opened in May 1956 - just two months after the House of Lords had over-ruled Parliament's attempt to abolish the death penalty (it would remain on the statute until 1969). Interviewed on BBC television by Malcolm Muggeridge the day after the press show, Behan was so drunk that Littlewood had to crouch behind his seat on the studio floor to keep him upright. The next day, she recalled, "every bus or taxi that passed us slowed down to shout 'Hi, Brendan! You was properly pissed on TV last night. Good on yer!' And the play was safely launched, sold out." The Quare Fellow transferred to the Comedy Theatre for a six-month run, followed by a tour. And Theatre Workshop had an even bigger hit in 1958 with The Hostage, in which Behan tackled his Republican past head on - although this time the writer-director relationship was not as cordial. "When Littlewood did The Quare Fellow she devised fantastic working methods to achieve Behan's writing," says Dominic Dromgoole, artistic director of Oxford Stage Company. "With The Hostage she put songs and music hall routines into it and ruined it. After The Quare Fellow Behan said, 'Joan Littlewood has directed a better play than I wrote.' After The Hostage he said 'Fuck Joan Littlewood.'" The Hostage would mark the peak of Behan's career. His prodigious boozing was financed by the royalties from the plays and his autobiography, Borstal Boy (1958), and as his wealth and fame grew, his output dwindled almost to nothing. He died in 1964, aged 41.

Interest in Behan himself hasn't dimmed in the intervening years - Peter Sheridan made a film about his life in 2000 - so why, then, has The Quare Fellow not been revived here or in Ireland (where the last major production was at the Abbey in 1982)? Dromgoole blames "the over-stimulated fuss about The Hostage. Because that was the bigger commercial success and was part of Littlewood's strange blend of truthful acting and variety, people have carried on associating Behan with that style and it becomes how they label that time and him." But there could be more practical reasons for its infrequent appearances. Economically, the play's hefty cast of 22 male characters is a prohibitive factor for most theatres, even at the best of times. Dromgoole, however, has made his devotion to "putting flesh on stage" a key plank of OSC's policy, with companies of 15 and 16, respectively, for last year's revivals of The Cherry Orchard and Sergeant Musgrave's Dance, and now 17 at Burke's disposal for The Quare Fellow (some of whom will double up).

Behan's masterstroke in The Quare Fellow - brought off a year before Samuel Beckett did something similar in Waiting for Godot - is to deny us even a glimpse of the title character. We learn nothing about his motives for murder, nor does Behan use him or his family to manoeuvre the audience into the kind of emotional tug-of-war that dominates death row films such as Dead Man Walking or, indeed, the 1962 film of The Quare Fellow, which spuriously added a torrid affair between a naive young warder, Crimmin (Patrick McGoohan), and the condemned man's wife (Sylvia Syms). Burke hates the screen version, directed by German born low-budget specialist Arthur Dreifuss, but Dromgoole, who's admired the play since studying it at university 20 years ago, admits to "quite liking the film's mix of the very cheesy with a British cinéma-vérité approach. They do at least stop short of introducing us to the quare fellow, thank God."

In its single location, narrow time frame and detailed presentation of methodical labour, The Quare Fellow could be classed alongside the English "work plays" that followed, such as Arnold Wesker's The Kitchen or David Storey's The Contractor. "You don't get drawn into a 'Should we, shouldn't we' argument about capital punishment," adds Dromgoole. "You're just presented with the fact of execution and how a group of people do it and deal with it and you get to the end and think, 'Thank God we've escaped that particular sort of barbarism.'"

All prison life is represented in Behan's ensemble. We meet young, middle-aged and elderly prisoners, novice and long-serving warders, the governor and the hangman who, like Britain's most notorious executioner, Albert Pierpoint, pops over to Dublin from his regular job as a pub landlord in England. "Even the parts that come across as small on the page have so many wonderful layers to them," says Burke.

Dunlavin, one of the old lags, is Behan's most memorable creation, with a vaudevillian's line in throwaway gags ("Killing your wife is a natural class of a thing could happen to the best of us.") and a desperate thirst for alcohol. In the play's most tragicomic image, he takes surreptitious swigs from the bottle of meths that Warder Regan is using to rub down his rheumatic legs. Regan is the play's moral centre and a supremely deadpan, ironic commentator, rebuking Holy Healey, the prisons inspector, for suggesting that the quare fellow will be redeemed by receiving the sacrament: "We can't advertise 'Commit a murder and die a happy death,' sir. We'd have them all at it." Regan and his colleagues, their minds fixed on "pay, promotion and pension", keep desultory watch over the prisoners as they sweep the yard, rag each other, bet on the likelihood of an eleventh-hour reprieve and help to dig the condemned's grave ("We'll be eating cabbage off that one in a month or two," notes Neighbour, Dunlavin's rickety old pal). Apart from a botched suicide attempt, there are no incidents to speak of, and yet, as Burke says, "Behan shows that for the prisoners, the day before an execution is quite an exciting time. There's something different to talk about and that will make this particular day go quicker."

Burke has made some changes to the original. After consulting "an Irish genius", Butcher Boy author Patrick McCabe, she felt confident about excising a few musical numbers from Behan's script. Songs like the one the young prisoners sing as they sweep ("Only one more cell inspection/ We go out next Saturday") have got the chop. "I think the songs were absolutely right for the 1950s, to soften the blow of a hard-hitting play, but I think that now they're a bit twee and 'diddly-dee'. Pat seemed to like my take on it, but I've just got to have the courage of my convictions and hope that if the spirit of Behan is watching he'll approve." With or without approval from on high, Burke's Quare Fellow has the makings of a must-see; bearing in mind the customary interval between the play's British productions, it could be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

'The Quare Fellow': Liverpool Playhouse (0151 709 4776), 12 to 21 Feb; Oldham Coliseum (0161 624 2829), 24 to 28 Feb; Glasgow Citizens (0141 429 0022), 2 to 6 March; Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds (01264 769 505), 23 to 27 March; Oxford Playhouse (01865 305 305) 30 March to 3 April; Theatre Royal, York (01904 623 566), 6 to 10 April; Tricycle, London NW6 (020 7326 1000), 14 April to 8 May