Brendan Behan’s The Hostage
is rarely performed, and Wonderland’s recovery reminds us why. The play that began as An Giall
, and premiered at the Damer theatre, Dublin in 1957, was subsequently translated into English by Behan, and later developed further by Joan Littleword for her Theatre Workshop in 1958. A hybrid beast since birth, The Hostage
contains an unruly mix of characters, ideas, politics, and styles that would scare off most companies.
Set in a Dublin guesthouse-cum-brothel in the 1950s, Behan’s drama portrays the detention of a young British soldier by the IRA in response to the scheduled execution in Belfast of an IRA volunteer. But while this storyline might just about be called the main plot, the drunken revelry, sexual escapades and musical showstoppers refuse to allow this narrative take centre-stage. Similarly, they prevent us from identifying with the blossoming love affair between the hostage (O’Shea) and convent girl Teresa (O’Sullivan) for too long. Rather, these elements strive to satirise Irish culture and nationalist politics almost to the point where meaning collapses. Given these thematic and theatrical concerns, The Hostage might be seen to bridge Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars
and Frank McGuinness’s Carthaginians
Under Alice Coughlan’s direction, the production is both spirited and mischievous. Before the play begins, the cast greets the audience on the ground floor of the Pearse theatre, while serving up tea, custard creams, and rousing ballads. Upstairs, when the performance begins, the cast maintains a giddy mood, as actors frolic about in the living room and intermittently chase each other up the stairs.
The production is at its best when the actors exploit the space with intention, by turning the house into a human warren of illicit activity which can we just about perceive, or by suddenly focusing our attention on the outside world by calling to unassuming passers-by on the street. And although some of the sight lines are obscured by the seating arrangement that is spread across two rooms, the mobility of the troupe makes us feel like we are never really missing out. Around the performance, too, there is enough history to discern, or imagine, in the room of Padraig Pearse’s birth.
While the production’s Tom and Jerry approach to movement is initially amusing, when frantic chasing is repeatedly used as a strategy to fill the expansive space, it eventually feels strained. The irregular pacing and drifting performance style does not help either. Frequently, for example, the action slows down dramatically for scenes deemed to be of political import, and the register switches from high camp or melodrama to weighty naturalism that interrupts the flow. Certainly, this difficulty is hardwired in the text, but if the director kept the action moving at a snappier pace and prevented some of the actors from over-indulging in psychological character, then the overall experience wouldn’t feel so jittery.
Playing the roles of caretaker and resident pianist, as well as composer to the production, Morgan Cooke does a fine job at keeping the musical interludes robust and entertaining. The ensemble pieces also stabilise the production by knitting more patchy scenes together. Despite fulfilling this important function, some of the lyrics are utterly absurd, such as when the British detainee rises from the dead for the final coda - “The bells of hell/ Go ting-a-ling-a-ling/ For you but not for me./ Oh death, where is thy sting-a-ling-a-ling/ Or grave thy victory?” – and we are left questioning not only Behan’s politics, but possibly even his literary integrity.
Lesa Thurman gives a great performance as social worker Miss Gilchrist, oscillating like a diva between stylized ebullience and despair. And Noel O’Shea does well to make British hostage Leslie Williams look more like a gormless romantic than a real threat.
It appears that Coughlan wants to foreground the lighter shades of Behan’s play, although the unwieldy script is resistant to her best efforts, and the overall effect is uneven. Running over two and half hours, the production becomes a bit of an endurance test when, after the first hour, neither the text nor the performance gives us a fresh idea to hold on to.
Fintan Walsh teaches and writes about theatre.