Brendan at the Chelsea
Naughton Studio, Lyric Theatre, Belfast
Oscar Wilde's famous line that he invested his genius into his life and only his talent into his art is even more apposite for his compatriot, Brendan Behan, whose precocious talents were profligately dispensed throughout a life infinitely more theatrical than any of his plays. The image that endures of Behan has been shaped by his life-long performance of the Stage Irishman, but this 'Broth of a Boy' caricature belies the brilliance of an artist whose work has long been overshadowed by epic stories of his alcoholic antics.
For his niece, Janet Behan, it must have been tempting, both personally and professionally, to counterpoint these pejorative images with an equally unbalanced portrait as a loveable rogue, or to insulate him in cliché as a tortured artist. Brendan at the Chelsea, however, is no saccharine sentimental evocation of a much-loved uncle and artist; it is neither hagiographic nor a hatchet job, but a complex character study of literally the 'tale-end' of the last few months of Behan's life.
Set in the Chelsea Hotel, the bohemian home where so many artists have come to grief, Behan - like a paunchy version of Samuel Beckett's Krapp - is recording himself on a tape recorder as he tries to finish a book that he's contractually bound to produce, and for which he's already drunk the advance.
The tape recorder is an ingenious, evocative device as in the latter years of his life Behan was no longer physically capable of writing; a disability that deeply ashamed him and which painfully symbolised how his life and art were washed up. The machine also is a means for accessing memories of Behan's earlier years which are relayed through a series of flashbacks (romantic moments with his long-suffering wife Beatrice; his triumphant success on Broadway; his bisexual encounters). These flashbacks often reveal Brendan at the height of his powers as a wit and raconteur, notably his brilliant badinage with the adoring New York press in which he reels out many of his most famous one-liners - "Critics are like eunuchs in a harem; they know how it's done, they've seen it done every day, but they're unable to do it themselves".
But these moments of an ebullient Behan in full throttle are then cruelly contrasted with the broken wreck of a man unable even to open his tablet bottles or to drink tea unaided. To witness the inexorable self-destruction of someone so gifted is a profoundly 'painful thing to watch', as Behan's kindly neighbour, the composer George Kleinsinger, observes. It is equally true for the audience.
Adrian Dunbar's performance as Behan is extraordinary. From the very opening scene when he awakens bleary-eyed from the previous night's bender and struggles to raise himself from his bed to his writing desk where he tips with trembling hands a jug of water over his face, Dunbar's metamorphosis into Behan is uncanny. Playing a man whose body has begun to disintegrate Dunbar not only physically resembles Behan but captures the distinctive muscular musicality of his speech, even the slurred delivery that latterly diminished this most loquacious Irish man of letters.
In his scenes with his wife Betty and his composer friend George (both beautifully played by Pauline Hutton and Richard Orr), Dunbar shows how under the influence of drink Behan could swiftly switch from being scintillating company into a snarling, insufferable bollix who was wont to lash out worst at those who loved him most. Between the extreme aspects of Behan's personality: the malevolent monster on one hand and the extravagant extrovert on the other, lay more complex realities and it is Dunbar's performance of these, of Behan's inner conflict, his self-loathing, doubt and remorse that is most impressive.
As his saintly, slightly masochistic, wife, Pauline Hutton subtly registers every insult hurled at her by her husband as she struggles to contain and conceal her grief at watching the slow painful disintegration of the man she loves and whose child she's carrying. Lianne, a ballet dancer carer/chaperone installed by Behan's publisher to ensure he finishes his book is played with sassy exasperation by a sexy Renée Castle who resists Behan's intoxicated advances though his wife suspects she is yet another of her husband's indiscretions.
Orr and Chris Robinson also double up as other characters that fit in and out of Behan's life and stage works, both of which are blurred, most memorably in a metatheatrical re-enactment of a scene from the The Hostage that is disrupted by a drunken Behan who clambers onto the stage for a singsong with the actors and audience.
Stuart Marshall's set of the most famous of New York hotels capitalises upon the intimate feel of the new Naughton Studio space to heighten the voyeuristic experience of watching the self-destruction of the real man behind the myth of Behan. The ordinary human Behan. In one lovely scene after another epic bender, Behan opens the begrimed window of his hotel room to survey New York's city streets to the soft sound of falling rain and records, in a reverie almost, an honest account of his struggle with alcoholism - a life-long battle lyrically distilled into a poignant passage about a single glass of brandy. Beautifully written, performed and staged, it is a moving tribute to one of our most quixotically gifted writers, and one that the man himself, would be most proud of.
"Brendan at the Chelsea" runs until 19th June