Saturday, 4 June 2011

Brendan at the Chelsea

"If Jesus Christ was married to you, he'd be back up that cross within five minutes, banging in the fucking nails himself."
One of the more memorable lines from Brendan at the Chelsea, playing at the newly rebuilt Lyric Theatre in Belfast.
Brendan Behan is played by the normally lithe Adrian Dunbar, whose fake beer gut struck the only false note about this performance.
The sluggish hungover movements, the drunken slabbering, the acerbic wit and cutting put downs - as evidenced in the opening line - and an easy charm are brought to life by Dunbar.
Set in New York's Chelsea Hotel in 1963, the year before Behan died, it finds the Dublin writer unable to physically write and recording his thoughts into a tape recorder.
His publisher is on his back looking for the book he has paid an advance for out of which Behan's hotel bill is being paid and which Behan is unable to deliver.
His lover - who we never see - with whom he has had a child, is urging him to break up with his wife although from the snatches of phone conversation we hear from Behan's side it doesn't seem she is fully committed to him.
His wife, Beatrice, is due to arrive in New York after finally tracking him down there two months after he fled from Dublin without telling her that he was leaving.
Behan is living in an alcoholic fug, shifting between hangover, enebriation, all-out slabbering drunkeness and delerium tremens.
An assistant, Lianne, tries to encourage him to write, gives him his medecine and puts him to bed when he can't do it himself.
A composer, George lauds his genius and tries to encourage him to seek help for his alcoholism because he is literally pissing away his talent.
The set of a hotel room with a bed, desk - laden down with papers, tape recorder, half filled glasses and medecine - and a sofa is cleverly used to flashback to the highs and lows of Behan's life.
His triumphant arrival in New York on a ship a few years earlier for the Broadway production of The Hostage, his verbal sparring with journalists at a press conference and a surreal trip into deleririum.
There were strong suggestions of Behan's rumoured bisexuality and how fame had in some ways driven him off the wagon and back to drink.
Some of the scenes were truly heartbreaking as this character who within a few minutes had endeared himself with his self-deprecation, quick one-liners and edgy charm became a drunk-sodden, snarling demon.
His body siezes up and he curls in spasms of pain at one point falling onto the floor and throwing up green bile.
Dunbar - up close in the Lyric's smaller Naughton Studio - dominated the stage and immersed himself in the character of Behan, with subtle mannerisms, cackles of laughter and, more touchingly, slapping his numbed hands that are no longer able to hold a pen and trembling uncontrollably as he tries to sip from a jug of water.
Probaly the most moving scenes are in the second half of the play when Beatrice arrives in New York and realises that her husband is not only involved with another woman but that the rumours that he has fathered a child with her are true.
This was intimate portrait, written by Behan's niece Janet Behan, that was enhanced by an intimate setting and superb sensitive acting.

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