Brendan Behan Revisited: The Adrian Dunbar Interview

Take any Friday or Saturday night in city centres across the UK. Revellers staggering from pubs and clubs at any time till dawn, collapsing drunk onto the pavement and being bundled into police vans to sober up. A/B-list celebrities & royals emerging unsteadily from their favourite London haunts, trading insults (and sometimes blows) with the awaiting paparazzis before scrambling to the safety of their limousines.
Pete Docherty meanwhile is somewhere in Town  putting on yet another ‘shambolic performance’, culminating in diving off the stage shoe/sock-less into the crowd.

Alchohol & drugs are standard fare in 2008 Britain. The Government’s vision of a ‘continental coffee culture’is not even on the distant horizon.  So why put on a play about a hung-over and broke Irishman holed up in a bohemian New York hotel more than 40 years ago?  ‘Brendan At The Chelsea’ opens at The Riverside Studios on 15th January and runs until 3rd February. It is an ‘anarchic and searing assessment of the myth and life of one of  Ireland’s least understood sons’ – the novelist and playwright Brendan Behan  (1923-1964). Written by his niece Janet, it stars Adrian Dunbar, one of  Ireland’s leading actors who has appeared in  (among many others) ‘My Left Foot’, ‘The Crying Game’ and ‘The General’.

Dunbar feels it’s time for a reappraisal of the ‘bunkum, guff & historical revisionism’ about Behan, who in the 1950’s (along with contemporaries such as Patrick Kavanagh & James Joyce) stirred up the great issues of that era. Behan didn’t care about being excommunicated by the Catholic Church  (automatic then for anyone who joined the IRA). His vision of Ireland wasn’t one ‘the chattering classes’ wanted. But he spoke for the ‘ordinary people,’ who loved him. He didn’t get any awards: he hadn’t gone to the same school as the people handing them out. He was a free-wheeler. Hypocrites ran scared from Brendan Behan. A republican marxist genius, he was ‘too witty, incisive,intellectual & clever’ to be suppressed.  Sentenced to three years in a reform school (hence his autobiography ‘Borstal Boy’) for an (unauthorised) solo mission to blow up Liverpool Docks  (he was too young to be hung)  he was later kicked out of the IRA for not taking the organisation seriously enough. A classic 1960’s ‘angry young man’ in search of a cause, he almost went to Spain to fight the fascists.

As for who will go to see the play  (apart from London’s resident Irish community), Dunbar points out that ‘real English theatre-goers’ are well aware of the big part Behan  (along with Joan Littlewood )  played in developing  radical London theatre. Posh society people with received pronunciation accents, more accustomed to the comforts of Shaftesbury Avenue, rushed to buy tickets for a little theatre in east London. “A flag had been raised for the proletariat”. Adrian Dunbar emphasises that the play does not ‘ring a bell for anything’, does not purport to occupy the moral high ground. It does, however, contain certain elements which could be uncomfortable for the Irish contingent in the audience. Behan’s downfall  (he died at 41) was the ‘disease of alchohol’. Would he have written as much (or as well)  if he’d always been sober? Hard to say. Artists “have always used drugs to access their creativity, to loosen them up, to allow them to step into that place where they are free enough to be possessed”.

Dunbar, though, clearly has strong views about society’s attitude towards alchoholism,  ’the only killer disease we are allowed to laugh at. We’d never make fun of someone suffering from, say, lukaemia’. He cites the cases of notorious embibers such as actors Richard Burton, Trevor Howard and Oliver Reed plus, of course, the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas. All of them were hounded and ‘entrapped’ by the media for quotes which would make the next day’s headlines. The press then was no more ‘benign’ than it is  now. Journalists would ‘deliberately spike’ Behan’s drinks, especially when he was ‘on the wagon’ (keeping off the booze). At the Chelsea, he was not at all well. Diabetes was overtaking him, his feet and hands were numb. He’d already survived longer than the doctors had predicted.

Adrian Dunbar is well-known & respected within the acting profession, but has no wish to become a celebrity. His close friend Neil Morrissey (who he admires for his facility in dealing with his fame)  is approached in public all the time. Dunbar’s big upcoming project is to direct a film about Irish Socialist Leader James Connolly – ‘the modern story of the Irish State’. As the centenary of the Easter Rising of 1916 is approaching, he has to get it right. “ It takes a country about 100 years to come out from under the shadow of its colonial past. So that means ourselves and India”. Young Irish and immigrants into the country “need to know what the Irish Republic is all about. It would be nice to put the record straight”. What the English will make of this is not his problem.

Filed under: Theatre & Film | Posted on February 1st, 2008 by Colin D Gordon

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