Tom Creed, Director of The Quare Fellow, writes about bringing this classic play to the stage with a fresh twist

For this production of Brendan Behan’s all-male prison play, we’ve put together a company of female and non-binary performers, with diverse backgrounds across performance styles, including drama, performance and cabaret, to inhabit Behan’s all-male prison setting. We draw on the whole tradition of cross-gender casting in the theatre, and a long history of male impersonation, from the trouser roles of baroque opera, and the music hall performances that Behan grew up with, up to contemporary drag kings. Drag as a performance style is simultaneously ironic and sincere, in which the truth of the underlying performer and of the character exist simultaneously in front of us, and which reminds us that identity is fluid and we are all constantly taking on and enacting different identities. In this production, it draws attention to the different kinds of masculinities that the characters in the play perform for each other, in order to maintain their status in a prison hierarchy in which everyone, staff and inmates alike, is institutionalised.

The play is clearly set in a specific time and place – Ireland in the mid-20th century, with the new state relying on systems inherited from the old empire, as well as new ones created hand in glove with the Catholic church, and a particular enthusiasm for the death penalty. While times may have moved on, it’s particularly striking to hear one of the older prisoners remark that life in prison might be preferable to sleeping on the streets, after walking past doorways on the way to the theatre in which people huddle for shelter. For this new production, we have tried to imagine spaces which vibrate between past and present, letting the play resonate with its own place and time and also across time and space to include other spaces in which people of all genders have been and still are incarcerated and institutionalised. Behan has wryly noted that the whole of the nation and the whole of society can be found in prison, so a polyphony of accents and social classes can be heard and observed. On visiting Mountjoy Prison during the rehearsal process, it became clear to us how the gallows humour of the play is part of the daily life of the prison, a coping mechanism to survive.

During rehearsal, I’ve felt strongly that The Quare Fellow is a play about survival, and all the things we do to try to survive the systems in which we are required to operate: masking trauma with humour or alcohol, playing out different roles and relationships, carving out space for small acts of rebellion, kindness or solidarity. The main event of the play – the execution of the title character at dawn – takes place out of sight and off stage, entirely out of the control of any of the characters – but everyone we encounter over the course of the play is impacted by and implicated in this event.

As we near midnight and the offstage death of the quare fellow becomes inevitable, a kind of improvised wake spontaneously takes place in the prison yard. A few bottles of stout are opened, and songs both spiritual and secular are sung. What might we do to stave off suffering? How might we pay tribute to lives lost, however brutal or neglected? The Quare Fellow opens a space for us to be together, in joy and hardship, on a winter’s night in Dublin, to reflect on past, present and future, and what we do to survive.

Tom Creed
November 2023

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