The Quare Fellow Interview

July 11, 2010

When reviewing Joan Littlewoods’s production of the show in Stratford East the famed theatre critic Kenneth Tynan said “It seems to be Ireland’s function every twenty years or so, to provide a playwright who will kick English Drama from the past into the present. Brendan Behan may well fill the place vacated by Sean O’Casey.” Yet it seems twenty or thirty years after these shows are first performed the people mounting them loose sight of their initial vitality and focus on the jokes rather than the circumstance. Director Ronan Wilmot talks about this and the other pitfalls he faced when he spoke to Caomhan Keane about his staging of Brendan Behan’s The Quare Fellow at the New Theatre from the 12th of July to the 7th of August.

How does Brendon Behan in general and the Quare Fellow in particular relate to a modern audience?

That’s one of the issues with doing this piece. It’s set in Mountjoy jail, the night before the Quare Fellow is to be hanged. Judicial hanging isn’t there anymore but it was then but that’s not what makes the drama in the play. The threat of this person who is going be hanged for the gruesome murder of his brother. The affect this hanging ,that’s going to happen the following morning, has on the other prisoners, that’s the drama in it. It has a fierce, powerful, dramatic impact. What is Macbeth, what is Hamlet to people nowadays? It has powerful drama in it.

You never see the quare fellow and this adds to the intrigue. What is there is this horrible, powerful build up, that near to them some body’s life is going to be taken away. The state is going to take some bodies life; down there in the room with the red door. As I said to the cast this is not going to be a great laugh. Were seeking out the sheer powerful drama and the horribleness of the act of judicial hanging.

We have three great playwrights having three of their funniest plays staged over the summer (Oscar Wilde’s Earnest was just staged by Rough Magic, The Abbey are doing The Plough and The Stars). They write these marvelously funny plays but they’re not just funny plays; they spring from tragedy and darkness. Irish actors in general and often directors too undermine their productions by just playing this humor. How do you avoid this?

The best productions I’ve ever been in or seen were the ones that go for the truth of it. I worked with the RSC when they were doing in 1980 a production of Juno and the Paycock to celebrate the centenary of O Casey’s birth (with Judy Dench) and that’s what Trevor Nunn went for. What was it that made it such a lauded controversial piece of work that the world stood up and took notice of this working class play write from Dublin?

The success and legacy of The Quare Fellow is said to be a combination of Brendan Behan’s words and the extra textual interpretation that Joan Littlewood put on it. How aware are you of all she did? Do you study her as a director as well or do you work solely with what you have in the script?

The basis of this production is what Behan wrote. And fair dues to Joan Littlewood. Nobody wanted to know this play in Dublin after it was done in The Pike. It was written by a working class, Republican play write, it was about judicial hanging, they didn’t want to know.

She picked up the script and she turned it into a world-class success. What I have read about what she did was make it a romp, to the point that actors improvised on the stage and audience members shouted things up. She was a genius at it and stuff like Oh What A Lovely War.

I just wouldn’t know how to direct a piece like that. I don’t have that ability or that interest. I have taken all that away and have gone for the heart of what this man wrote. I was a good friend of his wife and I just want to go right back to the story and the drama that he wanted to write.

The Quare Fellow, 8.00pm Jul 12th – Aug 7th, Preview: 12th July

By Brendan Behan at The New Theatre

Tickets: €15, €10 (concs)


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