Thirteen caged men. And the Quare Fellow waits. Brendan Behan’s satire on prison life and capital punishment is a play that still resonates deeply. It discusses complex issues: life, death and justice, with a beautifully simplicity and Kathy Burke’s acclaimed Oxford Stage Company production honours these values.
Though concerned with the lives of a group of male prisoners in Ireland’s Mountjoy Prison, Behan’s work compels the audience to sympathise with these criminals, forced as they are to endure real squalor and degradation, and raises questions in the process about the states moral responsibility in such situations.
The Quare Fellow spans just over twenty-four hours in an Irish prison in 1949 and centres on the imminent execution of the nameless and faceless Quare Fellow. The other prisoners and the wardens continue with their daily prison life: ‘slopping out’ their chamber-pots, exercising in the yard and having routine medicals yet, what with the executioner’s obsession with the mechanics of the ‘long-drop’ and the fresh grave that is being dug in the yard, no one can escape the inevitable and it is impossible for both the characters and the audience not to question their feelings about the Quare Fellows impending death.
Burke tackles this fascinating play with passion and understanding, and the production reflects the subtle complexities of Behan’s work. North Londons Tricycle Theatre proves once again to be an ideal venue for such a piece, a small and intimate space that forces the audience to feel part of the claustrophobic prison cells that adorn the stage. This same small stage also manages to become a bleak, barren exercise yard that reflects the melancholy of the prisoners who, although full of humour and emotion, are only shells of once vibrant and potentially brilliant men.
This is a truly superb production that boasts a very talented and thoughtful cast whose characters both impress and disgust the audience with their opinions, actions and crimes. There are no weak performances and every actor seems to excel in their role. In particular, Sean Campion as Warder Regan generates a measureless source of pathos as a man morally and emotionally exhausted, a man eroded by a government that accepts murder as a just punishment. As a warder, he has witnessed many executions and, through Campion’s brilliant performance, Regan becomes a convincing voice against a corrupt judicial system.
Tony Rohr, Jason Kavanagh and Oengus MacNamara all play eccentric prisoners who have lost their way with great energy and empathy. They, along with the rest of the cast, create a strange sense of both camaraderie and rivalry in the prison, a world where ideas of religion, crime, sexuality and age are distorted.
The actors are, at times, incredibly funny to watch, but their emotionally raw and powerful performances always come back to the fact that these are desperate and hopeless men. There is no room for sentimentality in the text and the cast respect Behan’s message through their thoughtful and restrained movement on stage.
In truth, this is a play about Irish Nationalism and the Quare Fellow is an embodiment of this. Perhaps he represents the culture and history of the Irish that the state refuses to accept, the fading Catholic faith or the past and present persecution of Ireland by the British government. What is clear though is that the Quare Fellow is intended to coax thought, empathy and guilt from the characters and from the audience, something Kathy Burke’s incredible production both understands and achieves.