Celebrating a century since Brendan Behan’s birth, a groundbreaking reworking of his classic play The Quare Fellow lands in the Abbey Theatre this November.
Featuring a cast of female and non-binary actors who perform all the male roles, the show centres on the arrival of a condemned murderer to Dublin’s Mountjoy Prison. The facility’s diverse inhabitants offer a darkly comic mirror to life outside its walls, and the production gives a new generation the opportunity to discover the playwright’s riotous humour and deep humanity.
Almost 70 years on from its debut, director Tom Creed is bringing the story back and spoke to GCN ahead of its opening in the Abbey.
What prompted the decision to cast only female and non-binary actors for a play with all male characters?
Why not? We’re drawing on the whole tradition of cross-gender casting in the theatre, and a long history of male impersonation, from the trouser roles of baroque opera, and the music hall performances that Behan grew up with, up to contemporary drag kings.
Drag as a performance style is simultaneously ironic and sincere, in which the truth of the underlying performer and of the character exist simultaneously in front of us, and which reminds us that identity is fluid and we are all constantly taking on and enacting different identities.
In this production, it draws attention to the different kinds of masculinities that the characters in the play perform for each other, in order to maintain their status in a prison hierarchy in which everyone, staff and inmates alike, is institutionalised.
The Quare Fellow already contains a gay character and is written by Behan, who is understood to have been bisexual. What do you feel adding a further queer element (namely, the performers in drag) brings to this production?
Apparently, Behan was once asked if he was gay, and replied, “Well, if I had to choose between Michelangelo’s David and Whistler’s Mother, who was ugly as the back of a bus, there’d be no f*ckin’ contest.” He was known to frequent the Catacombs, a dingy basement club on Fitzwilliam Place, where, according to Behan, “men had women, men had men and women had women”.
There is a gay character in the play, the Other Fellow, who has probably been caught having sex with another man, but in the homophobic context of prison and the time, his fellow inmates see that as a worse crime than someone who has murdered his wife.
The gender-swap allows us to pull the rug out from under the homophobia and misogyny of the time – show it up for what it was, and make fun of it as a way of critiquing it.
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Apart from the cast and performances, will this new production remain faithful to Behan’s original play?
We’re doing every word of the play, and I hope we’re going to be absolutlely faithful to the story and characters and to the spirit of humour and humanity that’s at the heart of all of Behan’s work – while at the same time being cheeky and irreverent and revealing the play in a new way.
Considering this production marks the centenary of Behan’s birth, what do you feel the importance is in bringing his work back to the stage?
I find the combination of humour and seriousness, and the way the play swings between them, really modern. I think there’s a sense of Behan as a writer that belongs to the last century, but I hope audiences will discover that he was a real radical – committed to social justice as well as a good time – queer in every sense of the word.
A condemned murderer arrives to Mountjoy Prison, whose inhabitants offer a darkly comic mirror to life outside its walls ⛓️
Brendan Behan’s classic Dublin play #TheQuareFellow is coming to the Abbey stage from 24th Nov, directed by @tomcreed1980
— Abbey Theatre (@AbbeyTheatre) November 8, 2023
The Quare Fellow will be showing from November 24 to January 27 at the Abbey Theatre, with tickets available here.
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