Monday 5 December 2016

Theatre: Sheridans do Behan too much justice

* Meet the Quare Fella, Viking Theatre, Clontarf
* Honest, Bewleys Cafe Theatre, Powerscourt

Emer O'Kelly

Published 14/11/2016 | 02:30

Young Behan, old Behan: Ryan Andrews and Gary Cooke. Photo: Al Craig
Young Behan, old Behan: Ryan Andrews and Gary Cooke. Photo: Al Craig
Kevin Murphy in 'Honest'

Objectively speaking, Brendan Behan achieved very little in his drunken self-pitying life. But Peter and Jim Sheridan think differently. Their jointly written play (directed by Peter) sees him as some kind of doomed genius. Doomed maybe, in that most people crossed the street to avoid him during his lifetime, and I suspect many of those who laud him nowadays would do the same were they to meet him.

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As for genius, Peter Sheridan's director's note for Meet the Quare Fella claims that The Hostage was an anti-play "which kicked theatre 20 years into the future." Arguable; but even if true, it was Joan Littlewood who did that with her production of the play at Stratford East. Without Littlewood, Behan would have been merely another Irish drunk with a pocketful of manuscripts.

The fact that he attained a short-lived notoriety in New York was due, not to his writing, but to his heaven-sent (as far the New York media were concerned) persona which so matched the beloved Irish stereotype: mean-minded, filthy, foul-mouthed, violent, and belligerently, permanently drunk, or insensible.

The Sheridans have used the device originally employed by the late Frank McMahon in Borstal Boy, that of the young and older Behan (he was only 41 when he died), confronting, encouraging, and observing each other. It needs good actors, and in this production at the Viking Theatre in Clontarf in Dublin, there are good actors, with Gary Cooke playing the older Behan, Ryan Andrews his younger self, and Andrew Murray various others, including Charlie, Behan's friend in Borstal, and also his lover, who was to go down in the Southhampton in World War Two. (More enlightened times permit the boyhood love affair to be more than faintly implied as in earlier works.)

The play tells Behan's destructive story as it was, but in a sympathetic portrayal that ignores the real damage of alcoholism: the anguish and damage it causes for those who love the selfish drunkard. But despite its warmth and the excellent dramatic value it offers in theatrical terms, Meet the Quare Fella never manages to convince me that Behan was anything other than a very small talent indeed, with his crude alcoholism the best thing that ever happened to him in terms of his career.

Conclusion? The Sheridans are far better writers than ever Brendan Behan was.

*******

The initial response to DC Moore's character Dave in Honest is to write him off in the kind of language he uses himself about others: a w***er with a massive chip on his shoulder. At least, that was my reaction. But Moore writes in layers, starting with a fairly massive ball of prejudice, and peeling off skin after skin to reveal the human being underneath in all his vulnerability and (almost) flawless beauty.

Honest has been successful in numerous productions since its premiere in 2010, and the new production at Bewley's Cafe lunchtime theatre at Powerscourt in Dublin is an impressive addition to the chain.

Directed by David Horan, Kevin Murphy unfolds beautifully as the minor Northamptonshire civil servant transported to London to work in the Strategic and Tactical Development team of some minor government department. Not for nothing he feels, do the initials spell out STD.

He believes in being honest (he once refused to tell his 10-year-old nephew Ben that the picture the latter had drawn was good, simply because it wasn't.) Now, he is determined to continue his honesty towards his boss (also named Ben) whom he describes as equivalent to "a 14-year-old retarded emperor with an erection".

Having succeeded in his ambition when he corners the latter in the loo during a drunken office party (which sends Ben home in tears), Dave takes off on an increasingly drunken odyssey around London in the wee small hours.

You've heard it before? Yes, we all have. But this one works: the observation is acute, if jaundiced, the misery and frustration almost palpable, and the outcome an endearing twist on honesty which manages completely to avoid bathos.

It's a lovely little piece, designed by Andy Murray and lit by Colm Maher.

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