Peter Sheridan: 'I always felt a connection to Behan because of where he came from'
It's been 50 years since director Tomás Mac Anna's knock-out production of Borstal Boy, Brendan Behan's autobiographical account of radicalisation, at the Abbey Theatre. It later transferred to Broadway and stormed the Tony Awards.
Peter Sheridan, who's currently adapting Behan's short story The Confirmation Suit, attended that première run.
"The first thing that struck me were the explosions," he says, still in awe.
"In one scene, bombs went off while a newspaper seller rushes out yelling 'IRA detonate bomb in Liverpool!' I didn't know theatre could do this".
Peter sounds less stirred by the stage effects than he was by an epic portrayal of a young man from the same part of town. The Behans' home was on Dublin's Russell Street, not far from where the Sheridans lived on Sackville Place. Peter's father even knew him to say hello.
"I've always felt a connection to Brendan because of where he came from. He didn't have a university education but he was a really bright man. Read Borstal Boy and you can infer that this boy is a professor of Irish history."
You could say that Peter saw something of himself in how Behan surpassed certain economic realities though self-reading.
"I came from an area where at school, you were told 'none of you guys will go to university. You'll go to England'. But I was the first pupil from my school to go to Trinity College."
Furthermore, Peter has clearly dedicated himself, in some fashion, to Behan's work. There was, of course, a screenplay of Borstal Boy he penned and directed in 2000. But long before that, he read the prison play The Hostage in his father's drama group. He adapted for stage Mother of All the Behans, a biography about Brendan's mother Kathleen, starring the great comedy actor Rosaleen Linehan in 1987. Only last year did he return to the subject with a new play melding Behan's biography and fiction, Meet the Quare Fellow, co-written with his brother Jim.
But it's also easy to draw a line from Behan to plays authored by Peter and Jim while directors of Project Arts Centre from 1976 to 1980. As a portrayal of capital punishment, Peter's play The Liberty Suit, co-written with Gerard Mannix Flynn, could be viewed as a cousin to Meet The Quare Fellow. The Sheridans' programmes at the centre were anarchic in a similar spirit to Behan's, dealing with issues ranging from the 1970s housing crisis to histories of Irish emigration to England.
"We were always anti-establishment," says Peter. "The arts were a middle-class preserve, for people with university education. It was all proper, as if you should dress up to go to the theatre. Fuck that."
He singles out the programming of London's Gay Sweatshop Theatre Company in 1976 as an example of shaking up the status quo. The Sheridans - both heterosexual and married - took a chance on messages of gay acceptance, even if it meant attracting opposition from the League of Decency and endangering their grant from Dublin City Corporation. Peter still beams at the decision. "Project was very much about raising those kinds of issues about people who were marginalised and disenfranchised."
Written two years before his death, The Confirmation Suit is Behan's autobiographical account of making his confirmation aged 12. Peter had originally viewed it as part of Meet the Quare Fellow, starring Après Match actor Gary Cooke. "Gary has kind of a lived-in look as Brendan," he says. "He's got the portly thing going on, a face as if he did too much boxing in his youth. Most importantly, he can nail a voice without it feeling like a caricature."
They reconsidered and found The Confirmation Suit deserving of its own billing. This story revolves around an eccentric suit tailored for a nervous boy to wear on his Confirmation day. "The evocation of the 1930s, the struggle for people to get a suit on the child's back to make their Confirmation, the fear of being asked the question by the archbishop: it's gold dust material," he says.
But the appeal of Behan's stories seems to hit somewhere closer to home for Peter. "They're very familiar," he whispers. "I feel like I'm writing about my own family. There's a lot I bring to the table that could also be the Sheridans".
After this project, he hopes to see a new play by Lisa Walsh, a playwright he's been mentoring, go to stage, a drama following a man coping with addiction. Also, Peter's production of Minding Frankie, an adaptation of the Maeve Binchy novel, is returning for a run at the Gaiety Theatre in June. Starring Clare Barrett and Steve Blount, it sees an alcoholic man step into fatherhood, seeking help on the way.
Both plays, like nearly all of Peter's works, look at overcoming challenging realities in the capital city. "That's been an obsession all my life," he smiles. "Liberating something that is uniquely Dublin. It's in my DNA".
The Confirmation Suit runs at Bewley's Café Theatre @Powerscourt, Dublin, May 8-June 3