Theatre: Sublime dunbar saves day
JUST how far can a production go on a single splendid performance from a distinguished actor? Quite far, it seems, with Janet Behan's Brendan At The Chelsea a play about the last days of her uncle Brendan Behan.
It has been a notable success since it first received a staged reading at the National Theatre in the UK in 2005. But apart from Adrian Dunbar's performance as Brendan, it really has nothing going for it.
Being harangued by an aggressive drunk while he meanders boringly and frequently mean-mindedly about his self-imposed troubles is always a dreary experience, whether on stage (a Lyric Belfast production at the Project Arts Centre in Dublin) or in real life. And that's all that Brendan At The Chelsea encompasses. Janet Behan has written a text that reveals little, merely gives a chronology of Behan's sordid and embittered last months, living at the Chelsea Hotel in downtown New York, preying on everyone who crossed his path, having walked out on his wife who (extraordinarily) still worried about him.
When Behan died of alcoholism, there were many who rushed to claim fellowship and deep friendship with the dead man– yet most of them had crossed the street to avoid him during his lifetime. Were they (and he) still alive, they would probably do the same today, and justifiably. But a cult had been created of the pathetically doomed genius, in many ways due to his sojourn in New York, where he fitted neatly into the American view of great Irish writers: drunk, dirty, foul-mouthed, and rude. The logic of it seemed to run: great Irish writers are drunks. Behan is an Irish drunk. Therefore Behan is a great Irish writer.
The fact that not all Irish writers, great or otherwise, are drunks, was, and still is, irrelevant to such thinking. And, of course, there is a theory that had it not been for the intervention of Joan Littlewood and her theatre at Stratford East, nobody would ever have heard the name Brendan Behan. But one thing is sure, a small talent does not become genius by looking through the end of a bottle.
Dunbar is superb and the support cast adequate (except for Pauline Hutton who plays the educated middle-class Beatrice Salkeld Behan with an accent that makes you expect her to come out with "yerra, musha, begorrah" any second).
Maybe there is a good play in Behan's wasted life, but this is not it, any more than his tragedy makes him a genius.