The provocative, witty, ever-difficult writer Brendan Behan (1923-64) who memorably described himself as a “drinker with a writing problem” and whom the Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh quite ungenerously summed up as “evil incarnate”, is charismatically brought to life by Adrian Dunbar in Brendan at the Chelsea, a drama penned by Janet Behan, niece of the turbulent man himself.
“I like Brendan a lot,” says Dunbar, who has taken the role of the Quare Fellow to Broadway where it received an excellent review from the New York Times.
“Brendan was funny, he enjoyed challenging people, he was concerned about the poor, his politics were socialist - he was something of a tormented genius,” adds Adrian, who also directs this spirited piece.
Behan was tormented, to be sure; one Dublin publican, on his death, put it well: “God Bless him, he was an awful ****ing nuisance.” Behan was a raging alcoholic, a nightmare with deadlines, routine, structure. He was the great Irish wit, the last man standing at the bar, full of blether and talk, absolutely everything prefixed by ‘jaysus’ and a rich selection of profanities. He thought nothing of caterwauling in auditoriums, removing his shoes wherever he felt like it or falling asleep on live television; smashing up bars or bringing other women home to the marital bed displayed the nastier side of his torment.
“There’s a story,” says Dunbar,” “that Behan once spent a week staying with Samuel Beckett at his apartment in Paris. In the end Beckett - who was an incredibly polite man - had to ask Brendan to leave. Brendan was a force of nature, a law unto himself and someone who charmed and enraged a great many people at once.” This is Brendan at the Chelsea’s second run at the Lyric, the intimate drama centring on Behan’s final stay at the ultra-hip New York Hotel which has had an illustrious roll-call of guests including Bob Dylan, Janis Joplin, Allen Ginsberg, Leonard Cohen, Patti Smith, Dylan Thomas (who died there from pneumonia in 1953) and Charles Bukowski; girlfriend of the Sex Pistol’s Sid Vicious - Nancy Spungen - was found stabbed to death at the hotel in 1978. The Chelsea, like Behan himself, possessed both charm and miasma; Arthur Miller addressed this with his short piece The Chelsea Affect, describing life there in the 1960s.
This drama focuses on the poignancy and defiance of the alcoholic in Behan battling against - some would say incrementally destroying - the live-wire genius-spark of imagination that had brought his writing such force and impact in work like The Quare Fellow. This is a vision of a man in decline, shaking with alcohol dependency, floating in and out of reverie, his mind swimming back to happier times, the phone ringing endlessly with editors wanting already hugely late copy.
Above all, the piece is stupendous for the way Dunbar inhabits the role, his own personality melting away until he is simply the swearing, confused, befuddled, raging and brilliant Brendan Behan, cigar held rakishly at the side of his mouth, spouting all the best lines of insolence - some aimed like arrows at his critics.
“It is a brilliant line that Behan came up with,” adds Adrian with a laugh, “and one I do enjoy delivering: “Critics are like eunuchs in a harem; they know how it’s done, they’ve seen it done everyday, but they’re unable to do it themselves.” Behan had a point, but said eunuchs kept him adored - for a time - on Broadway.
Adrian Dunbar is completely mesmerising in this role - making the audience suspend disbelief entirely; he seduces us just as Behan would have, accent perfect, twinkle in eyes, agitation and turbulence mixed up with genius world-play, indefatigable wit. Dunbar is totally Brendan here, no ordinary “human Behan”.
Brendan at the Chelsea, Lyric Theatre, Belfast until November 10. Visit www.lyrictheatre.co.uk/ or call the box office on 02890 381081.