The Quare Fellow was written in 1954. This was also, ironically enough, the year of Ireland’s last hanging. In the play, one of the prison lags complains that the only thing the Free State changed was the badge on the warders’ caps. This was before ‘the troubles’ and long before the war came to the ‘mainland’. Given today’s relative calm and the exhaustion of the forces that once constituted Irish political life, such sentiments only hint at the conflict that fuelled the horrors of ‘judicial hanging’ that is otherwise rather glossed over in this production.
This is a more than competent directorial effort by Kathy Burke, working with the Oxford Stage Company following their 50th Anniversary revival that toured last year. And it has received deserved plaudits from the critics. The ‘warts and all’ realism will be no surprise to those familiar with Burke’s acting roles. Indeed, for those sitting in the front row the ‘slopping out’ of chamber-pots is all too graphic. The dialogue crackles with fine ensemble performances from the 17-strong cast. Sean Campion as the troubled Warder Regan is particularly impressive, as are the comic turns of the old-timers Dunlavin (Ciaran McIntyre) and Neighbour (Tony Rohr).
And yet Behan’s spit and sawdust Ireland bares little relation to today’s smoke-free continental wanabee. And Kilburn – the Tricycle’s home in north London, where many immigrant workers have settled over the decades, to endure the anti-Irish siege mentality as the war intensified – is not what it used to be either. Today’s newcomers are as likely to visit London for the ‘craic’ as their young antipodean peers on a stop-gap before moving onto more exotic backpacking destinations further a field.
In this context, Burke is helped by the fact that Behan assumes along with his intended audience the whys and wherefores of the incarceration of his affectionately drawn characters. One has to ask what the reception to his work might have been during the bombing campaigns of the 70s and 80s. Would anybody have dared to stage it? After all, he drew on his own experiences including a stretch in the play’s setting of Mountjoy prison on account of his IRA activities.
But in our post-political era, and as an alcoholic womaniser who died young, Behan’s reputation is perhaps less that of a forgotten literary figure (in Britain, at least) writing in a distinct political tradition, than that of a rather fashionable victim of his own excesses.