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  • Chris O'Rourke

The Quare Fellow

Kate Stanley Brennan, Eva Jane Gaffney, Aisling O’Mara and Wren Dennehy in The Quare Fellow. Image by Ste Murray.


When wondering why this play at this time it might be wise to also ask why this way? Take Brendan Behan’s The Quare Fellow, first produced in 1954. This years curious Christmas offering at The Abbey. A prison drama set during the lead up to an execution unlikely to make any season merry and bright. So why this play? Well, The Quare Fellow is Behan’s best known play, hasn’t been performed in almost forty years and touches on powerful themes. Why this time? To celebrate the centenary of Behan’s birth before the year runs out. As to why this way, namely an all female and non binary cast playing traditionally male roles, that depends on your viewpoint. Talk of queering performance to explore Behan’s alleged bisexuality and interrogate institutionalised masculinities through the tradition of drag is justification for some. For others it's a juvenile approach done many times before yielding about as much of substance as a politician’s promise. Either way, if, as director Tom Creed claims, The Quare Fellow is about how we survive, Behan’s The Quare Fellow barely survives Creed’s ambitious interpretation. One in which inherent drama is dulled into insignificance when not being interrupted by humorous set pieces. A production that sold its soul so its trouser roles could rock ’n’ roll in kitsch.

Rebecca O’Mara, Eva Jane Gaffney, Kate Stanley Brennan, Taylor McLaine

and Ebby O'Toole-Acheampong in The Quare Fellow. Image by Ste Murray.

Whatever its underlying agenda, The Quare Fellow’s slice of prison life proves disappointingly staid, despite an ensemble you’d give your right arm for. Including relative newbies Ebby O’Toole-Acheampong and Taylor McClaine looking undaunted next to more experienced hands. While humour looms large throughout the first half, drama rarely lands as drag dresses proceedings like a 1970s sketch show. Prison and its routines pitched barely above a Carry On routine. Populated by caricatures from Halls Pictorial Weekly, The Benny Hill Show and an Elvis impersonator with a touch of five o’clock shadow. Character sacrificed to cartooned caricatures impossible to connect to, care about, feel sympathy for, interest in, or learn from. Their primary value being sources of laughter. Creed placing all his dramatic eggs into a lightweight comedy basket proving costly when humour runs out of road. The second half trudging for being unable to handle the play’s weightier themes, especially around death, class, and religion during the countdown to the condemned man’s hanging. An ending aspiring to the intensity of a Monsters Ball, but losing out for looking more like Monsters Inc (again, if only it were as entertaining, subversive or as irreverent as that sounds). By then you’re incapable of taking its serious seriously despite Stephen Dodd’s excellent atmospheric lights. Behan’s powerful ending landing with the force of an afterthought as life goes on. The Quare Fellow, like its namesake, seeming immediately forgettable.

Kate Stanley Brennan in The Quare Fellow. Image by Ste Murray.

If your expectations lean towards Prisoner: Cell Block H, Orange is the New Black, or Oz, as they understandably might, you’re going to need to revise those expectations. Similarly if you’re thinking subversion, irreverence or LBGQT+ interrogations of substance. Instead, The Quare Fellow makes Porridge look like a hard hitting, human interest documentary, one that's funnier and more insightful. Sporting a The Usual Suspects swagger, it trades the play’s underlying themes, threats, terrors and traumas for easy, unimaginative kitsch. One in which Behan’s script loses far more than it every gains. Radie Peat’s offstage renditions of The Auld Triangle about as haunting as a commercial jingle for the Irish tourist board. Two further musical interludes try hard to bring up the emotional rear, only to sound equally cloying. Skirting the line between drag and clowning, Catherine Fay’s blue is the new orange outfits suggest an extremely low budget Squid Game. Paul O’Mahony’s grey set shifting from prison block to prison yard more impressive as a feat of engineering than as a visual spectacle. Engagement mustered courtesy a hard working cast comprised of Gina Moxley, Barbara Brennan, Eva-Jane Gaffney, Marion O’Dwyer, Rebecca O’Mara, Aishling O’ Mara, Amy Conroy, Kate Stanley Brennan, Wren Dennehey, Chloe O’Reilly, Camille Lucy Ross and Emer Dinnen. While heightening the divide between character and actor, drag proves a meta-theatrical device that informs little other than itself. The Quare Fellow’s theatrical drag act falling seriously short in its interrogation of masculinity. Men rendered visibly invisible, reduced to laughable performative paradigms presented as self fulfilling, patriarchal prophecies with which masculinity is constantly conflated. Another casualty alongside questions on class, religion, dying, and the horrific lived experience of prisoners which inform Behan’s script. Distanced into a cartooned version incapable of handling the play’s darker themes, while offering little of substance to compensate.

Gina Moxley, Aisling O’Mara, Barbara Brennan and Marion O’Dwyer in The Quare Fellow. Image by Ste Murray.

When placed next to The Abbey’s The Gregory Project, a series of seven plays by six women playwrights commissioned for 2024 to commemorate The Abbey’s 120th year, The Quare Fellow’s gender explorations raise additional questions. Not so long ago a wholly justified uproar was heard following the omission of female playwrights from The Abbey’s 1916 commemorative programme. Which rightfully led to a wholesale reassessment of mission statements and policy documents right across the theatre board to reflect 50/50 gender inclusiveness. Some worried it signalled the beginning of a power shifting rather than a power sharing dynamic in Irish theatre. A shift in gender bias rather than a serious effort towards achieving genuine gender balance. What looks like the deliberate omission of male playwrights from The Abbey’s entire 2024 programme, with the finances and resources that go with it, gives renewed pause for thought.

Wren Dennehy and Clare Barrett in The Quare Fellow. Image by Ste Murray.

You might argue that under Caitríona McLaughlin’s leadership The Abbey has produced mostly male playwrights, but old works by dead, male playwrights like Behan leave huge areas unaddressed. New wine needs new, paid up wineskins to give new voices space for new performative paradigms. Also, most doesn’t come anywhere close to being all, and The Gregory Project is all about all. If one sided, gender favouritism wasn’t an acceptable way of celebrating in 2016, why is it acceptable now? Shouldn’t 50/50 do what it says on the tin, like the upcoming Olympics? Or is it right that the pendulum has swung to the other side? No-one is denying women playwrights need space to create, a space far too long denied them by men, and need to be supported in that. Indeed, McLaughlin can be justifably proud of her contribution in that regard. But how, in the 21st century, can a celebration of 120 years of the National Theatre be monopolised by works written exclusively by a single gender then presented as being inclusive, and reflective, of our broader society? For some, The Quare Fellow with its all female and non binary cast followed by a year devoted to six women writers suggests things have gone too far. For others, things won't have gone far enough. Either way there’s a conversation needs to be had on how, and by whom, gender is being represented and re-presented on stage and in Irish theatre. Right now, the optics are curious to say the least.

The Quare Fellow. Image by Ste Murray.

Creed and McLaughlin are both sincere and talented artists, but you have to ask if they called it right here? No one is saying The Abbey shouldn’t explore drag or similar theatrical practices, it’s vital it should. Or that it shouldn’t celebrate Lady Gregory or her invaluable contribution. Though it is curious why not even one of her works is included in the festival named for her. Is it that old wineskins are not as important as new voices? Whatever your position, privileging Lady Gregory as the sole face of The Abbey’s 120th celebration tosses aside Synge and Yeats, amongst others, who made substantial contributions to the emergence of a National Theatre. Sure, they’re both flawed, but Gregory’s selective censorship and her Victorian notions of Irish respectability also leave a lot to be desired. Leaving words like risk taking and inclusion, used to promote The Gregory Project, sounding like spin. If, as Creed claims, The Quare Fellow is about how we survive, embedded in that is the question of who survives? Like The Gregory Project, The Quare Fellow can seem to suggest that the conversation on masculinity is all but over when, in truth, it’s barely begun. But who is doing the talking, and for whom? Throughout The Quare Fellow the word silence hovers over the stage, beckoning like white neon in a fog. Begging the question, who is it that's being silenced?

We need to talk about gender. Question is, who gets to do the talking? And when?

The Quare Fellow, by Brendan Behan, runs at The Abbey Theatre until January 27 2024.

For more information visit The Abbey Theatre


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