Dec 22, 2023

Tom Creed Adapts the Irish Canon with ‘The Quare Fellow’

Emotion and energy collide in Tom Creed's exciting interpretation of Behan's portrait of prison life.

Laura O'CallaghanTheatre Editor

At the focal point of Dublin’s theatre scene this Christmas and New Year period, occupying the main stage of the Abbey is director Tom Creed’s subversive adaptation of Brendan Behan’s The Quare Fellow, running from November 24th until January 27th 2024. An exciting interpretation, Creed’s reimagining of Behan’s gallows-centric tragi-comedy sees an all-female and non-binary cast reimagine roles originally played by a male ensemble, upholding drag as an art form and exploring its overlap with theatre to crowds of Dubliners and tourists alike in the country’s national theatre this holiday season. 

The Quare Fellow places the audience in Mountjoy prison among the animated guards, more frequently referred to as the screws, and the equally exaggerated inmates in mid 20th century Ireland. The narrative collects itself around the impending hanging of the “Quare Fellow”, the phantom of the piece, whose sentence spurs on the fundamental question of the show: who possesses accountability for capital punishment?

This ensemble-heavy production is supported by an electric cast with no less than four Abbey theatre debuts, as well as a series of Abbey veterans such as Marion O’Dwyer and Barbara Brennan.Throughout the first act, a wonderful chemistry is established between the inmates through energetic, combative and often crass dialogue exchange. An episode comes to mind where Brennen’s character, Dunlavin, is discussing how screws are all the same alongside Emer Dineen’s Prisoner E and Eva-Jane Gaffney’s Prisoner B. A lengthy anecdote ensues regarding “these two screws” that I would definitely be hard pressed to repeat. That is either due to my own lack of ability to follow an anecdote for more than five minutes or the cause of a slightly muffled delivery. Nonetheless, the energy they were putting out was palpable and it made for a particularly entertaining entrance into the world of humour incarcerated individuals rely on to survive. 


Rebecca O’Mara’s performance as Lifer deserves a colossal amount of praise and is a definite stand-out in my book. O’Mara’s caricature-esque facial expressions as a new inmate at Mountjoy, just having received a death-penalty reprieve in exchange for a life sentence at the beginning of the play, are priceless. It is in equal parts hilarious and deeply disturbing. Convicted for killing his brother, Lifer appears about a foot away from the edge of a very tall building each second he’s on stage with limp, long hair and a gaunt withdrawn complexion. Combine that with the thick D4 accent O’Mara assumes to colour her delivery, the result is just golden.

It’s clear this production is a labour of love from all those who worked on it. The Quare Fellow’s costume designer Catherine Fay paid an acute attention to detail when designing the particulars of each inmate’s uniform. Lifer, who has just begun his sentence, emerges in a freshly pressed, stiff and boxy attire. In contrast, Eva-Jane Gaffney as Prisoner B swaggers onto the stage with suspenders hanging low, clearly not his first rodeo. The costume department and the cast were advised by Breege Fahy, a Drag King Consultant, who gave some insights into the various ways that actors performing in drag must work to further their illusion. “Picking the right costume for the body shape,” Fahy writes in The Quare Fellow’s programme, “is a major part of the process- a certain cut of trousers will help to hide curvy hips.” Going beyond the surface, Fahy stresses that an additional facet of a drag king’s persona that must be explored is the privilege attached to the male perspective that they are assuming. So too with this cast, certain mannerisms are required to reflect the male world their characters inhabit. Creed’s production provides an interesting challenge for an actor to execute such a transformation. Gina Moxley particularly shined in this aspect of projecting masculinity through her acting. As Neighbour, Gina limps over to leer at the girls putting out the washing, and reminisces over the women of his youth. The gendered line between the female actor and the male inmate becomes non-existent.

My main gripe with The Quare Fellow lies in its pacing and scant thematic plot progression. Fueled by the punchy scenes of general inmate shenanigans in act one, the first half of the show is well paced and gradually rolls to the intermission. Act two however, I found, slowed down majorly. After investing my lot with the fate of the inmates through the duration of the first act, I felt severe whiplash when the focus was shifted to the guards in act two. I appreciate the concept of a two act divide between perspectives but I found in its execution it missed the mark. This disconnect could be afforded to the confusing tone of the production. After the actors reinforced a caricature-like interpretation of masculinity in the first act which encouraged an almost satiric reception, the sharp diversion into the heavy, slow, and lingering scenes of act two meant that the emotional investment needed from an audience to support a severe lack of action in the plot was decidedly absent.

Additionally, I also found that the play’s exploration of mass societal accountability regarding punishment as a theme did not go far enough. The Co-Directors of the Abbey, Caitríona Mclaughlin and Mark O’Brien, characterise Brendan Behan’s literary register as “comic, bawdy, and tender” in the show’s programme. I am not entirely sold on the “tender” claim. The play closes as the inmates fight over the letters The Quare Fellow wished to have been sent to his family following his death, which a screw has discarded into his grave. Though this may have been intended to serve as a return to the hierarchy of heightened masculinity for the sake of survival, director Tom Creed determined as a pivotal theme of the play, the set up for such a moment wasn’t there. Again I feel this is due to a lack of authentically grounded, emotional moments during act one. Indeed, I could not pick out this theme highlighted by Creed throughout the show.

However, emotion and energy collided during three distinct scenes of act two which helped to ensure a cathartic and satisfying resolution to the piece. The moments in question are the musical performances of Chloe O’Reily and Emer Dineen, along with the striking hanging scene. With reprisals of ‘The Auld Triangle’ facilitating scene transitions throughout the show, incorporating live music into the piece through the voices of the inmates and the screws in act two helped an audience to see beneath the layers of pretence these men put up. Dineen’s character Jenkinson plays a mournful song on the accordion while the executioner calculates The Quare Fellow’s measurements in the lulls of his singing, clearly these men aren’t entirely numb to the disturbing nature of this act, and in these moments of quiet, the walls are lowered. 

The hanging scene is rife with the theatrical creativity I feel is sometimes lost in a realist play such as The Quare Fellow. During this scene an inmate, in the manner of a sports commentator, gives a rapid fire description of the hanging followed by searing cries from the other inmates once the deed is done. This dramatic choice effectively calls back to warder Regan’s scathing comment that the death penalty should be held in Croke park to force Dubliners take their allotted sum of accountability. And so, at the play’s climax character, narrative, and theme complete their cyclical journeys and an audience is left to think over their own shirked responsibilities in life.

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