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by Anthony Chase
The Irish Classical dives into the complexities of staging Brendan Behan’s classic drama
During rehearsals for her landmark 1958 production of Brendan Behan’s play, The Hostage, director Joan Littlewood improvised the line, “He died in a foreign land and at home he had no one.” Behan kept the sentiment in his script, and when the play opened, Sunday Times critic Harold Hobson proclaimed the line to be the best of its kind written for 2,000 years!
It is impossible to give thoughtful consideration to the work of Brendan Behan without evoking the name Joan Littlewood. While Behan had a brilliant and singular theatrical vision, he lacked the self-discipline and focus to deliver it to the stage. He was a glowing life spirit with facility for language, and experience in the IRA and in prison to draw upon; she was sensitive, well organized, and a theatrical genius. In 1956, Littlewood transformed his chaotic text for The Quare Fellow into a hit, establishing both his reputation and her own. (When he arrived for a BBC-TV interview stumbling drunk, Littlewood was there to prop him up and prod him on, as the stunned interviewer watched in disbelief.)
Littlewood’s other great works of the period include the British premiere of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children (1955), in which she also played the leading role; Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be, a musical that ran from 1959 to 1962; Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey (1958); and the satirical musical Oh, What a Lovely War! (1963).
A sprawling and politically oriented play, developed by Littlewood through improvisation with a large cast, any staging of The Hostage is a big undertaking. The Irish Classical Theatre has plunged headlong into the charge with their current production, directed by Greg Natale, now playing at the Andrews Theatre. Buffalo audiences can be thankful for this opportunity to see Behan’s spirited story of an English soldier (Joshua Radford) taken hostage by the IRA and kept prisoner in a Dublin lodging house that doubles as a brothel.
Like The Quare Fellow, The Hostage presents a countdown to the execution of a boy we never see. Here we learn that the IRA has taken the hostage in response to the British imposition of a death sentence on an 18-year-old Irish boy in a Belfast prison. The situation prompts Pat and Meg (Tom Zindle and Maureen Ann Porter), the married master and mistress of the house, to bicker about Irish nationalism and English interference in Irish affairs. Meg insists that the old cause is never dead; Pat, who served in the Irish Civil War with Monsewer, the now addle-brained owner of the lodging house (Tom Loughlin), claims to believe that the days of the heroes are over.
The plot is clearly linear and climactic. As the clock ticks down to the hour of the Irish boy’s execution, the residents of the house get to know and become fond of their English prisoner. The Irish maid (Bethany Sparacio) falls in love with him. Meanwhile, the IRA soldiers (Christopher Standart with Aaron Krygier as his submissive lackey), ostensibly the champions of freedom and humanity, turn out to be tyrannical and brutal. Conflicted between their love of Ireland and their own human compassion, the residents of the house entertain the thought of helping the Englishman escape.
The circular stage of the Andrews Theatre, exquisitely used by designer Ron Schwartz, lends itself to the job of telling the story of this undisputed Irish classic with great authority and immediacy. After a long and chaotic first act of merriment and spirited squabbling, the play finally arrives at the core of the action. The English hostage makes his entrance, thrown to the center of the floor with a bag over his head. The house residents circle round him, their festive appearance giving him the impression that he has arrived at a party, rather than his probable execution. The image is powerful.
I suspect that the playful tone of much of the piece, coupled with the praise from Sir Harold Hobson, whose reputation as an early champion of Harold Pinter was well known, inspired other critics to describe The Hostage as an “absurdist” work, but I cannot really see the play in that light. Absurdism was the edgiest “ism” of the day, but Littlewood, aggressively working-class in her worldview (“I really do believe in community, and in the genius of every person,” she insisted), and impeccably well-educated, drew heavily from the English music hall tradition and from improvised commedia dell’arte of the Italian Renaissance. These inspirations are everywhere apparent in this ambitious production of The Hostage, with its two-dimensional character types; Pat’s asides to the audience in his role as master of ceremonies; its incorporation of singing, dancing, and physical comedy; the interjection of jokes; and its combined use of comic and serious elements.
It is difficult to recapture the energy that The Hostage reportedly once projected. When the Behan/Littlewood collaborations first occurred, they were a sensation. Kenneth Tynan may have been singing the praises of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, but Behan famously opined that compared to what he and Littlewood had accomplished, Look Back in Anger was about as angry as Mrs Dale’s Diary, a radio soap opera of the time about a physician’s wife. (In retrospect, the play also represents an important period of Anglo-Irish artistic collaboration before the violence in Northern Ireland escalated.)
In 2012, when the play must be approached as a scripted rather than an improvised piece, The Hostage presents formidable challenges. Without the spontaneity and energy of its original cast—who had invented its madcap antics—the text begs to be cut. (Behan himself would sometimes visit performances and jump on stage during the first act, uninvited, to partake in the free-form clowning.) The line between stock characters and cartoons, similarly, can be difficult to walk in a play that is ultimately very serious.
The Hostage may be a classic, but given these challenges, it is most frequently performed on university campuses. Indeed, the current production is the first professional production I have ever actually seen. I am enticed by accounts of others, notably Littlewood’s own, which made its historic move to New York in 1960, and the 1983 Long Wharf Theatre production. The latter featured Pippa Pearthree as the ethereal Irish maid who evokes Littlewood’s immortal improvised line. (Pearthree recently appeared at Shea’s as Grandma in the national tour of The Addams Family; how time flies!)
I was fascinated at the opening night at the Andrews Theatre to speak with two unrelated members of the audience who had seen the Littlewood production. While remarking on differences between then and now, both recalled that as young men they had taken in The Hostage because it was “the show to see” in 1960. Both found the ICTC production to be satisfying. Both specifically remembered the pounding of the piano in Littlewood’s onstage brothel, and noted that while effective, fiddle music alters the intensity and the tone. The ICTC characters seemed broader, they said, though the distinction could be a matter of 50 years of tempering by the memory.
The ICTC has assembled a strong and able acting ensemble for this auspicious occasion.
Joshua Radford gives a moving performance as the charming title character, gradually leading the young English soldier to a crisis of bewildered desperation.
I found the performance of Maureen Ann Porter as Meg Dillon to be especially compelling. It is a delicious role, and whether bickering with her husband (in a wry and steady performance by Zindle), intimidating one of the resident whores, dancing a jig, or urging hostage Leslie Williams to make his escape, Porter is uniformly real and affecting.
In addition to those mentioned, R. J. Voltz and Greg Howze play Rio Rita and Princess Grace, a pair of high camp resident fairies of 1950s vintage. Jim Maloy plays civil servant Mr. Mulleady and Lisa Ludwig plays Miss Gilchrist, his oversexed but outwardly repressed companion. Andrea Andolina and Marie Costa play the resident whores. Michael Votta plays the lusty Russian sailor with ready cash. Mary Ramsey provides fiddle music, artfully as always (with Inga Yanoski playing the role at some performances).
Supporting the production are lighting design by Brian Cavanagh, excellent sound design by Tom Makar, perfect costume design by Ann Emo, and hair/make-up design by Susan Drozd. Choreographer is Samantha Kenney. Music direction by Lori Crawford.
Yes, the script is a rambling beast, but the cast at the Andrews Theatre is talented and clearly devoted to the enterprise. For fans of truly great and important Irish plays, this ambitious production is a rare opportunity and an event to be seized upon—just the sort of thing an “Irish Classical Theatre” should be doing!
The Hostage continues through February 5. For tickets, call 853-ICTC.
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