2014 marks the 50th Anniversary of the death of Irish author, activist, and playwright Brendan Behan. In memory of this anniversary, Borstal Boy, based on Behan’s autobiography of the same name, is being performed at Dublin’s Gaiety Theatre for most of October.
We of the Champlain Abroad Dublin Literary Experience class, were lucky enough to see a performance on Wednesday the first. We rushed up to our seats only a two minutes before the production began. And it went off with a BANG! Literally, a BANG as the story began with a time bomb going off in an Irish Republican Army (IRA) man’s pocket by accident. Behan is then sent over to Liverpool with another time bomb, but is caught and sentenced to three years in a borstal as he is only seventeen when these occur.
What is a borstal you may ask? A borstal is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a special prison for people who are too young to go to a regular prison.” In America, we’d normally refer to it as a Juvenile Detention center, but it’s a bit different from that because it’s English.
The production was phenomenal! The scenery was very stark, mainly there was a wall that could be rolled around the stage and a few prison doors that came down from the rafters, and the actors were the ones moving the backdrop and props on and off the stage. That was a fantastic aspect of the show, in fact. Most scenes began with one of the “screws” coming onto the stage and shouting for the actors to move things. I think it enhanced the show, actually.
The show was also moved along by music, which is uncommon for most productions of Borstal Boy. However, the music seemed to bring life to the stage and a bit of culture as well because most of the music were snippets of Irish traditional songs placed in different spots of show. After the bows, as a way to honor Behan perhaps, the cast sang ‘The Auld Triangle,’ a song that became popular after it was sung in The Quare Fellow, a different Behan play. They encouraged the audience to join in at the chorus in, what I assume, was meant to be in honor of the late playwright.
Something that was amazing, and almost eerie, was the casting of the older Brendan. Throughout the play, there is narration by the older Brendan, making remarks that the younger cannot because he’s too timid or “because of the stutter.” But Gary Lydon, who played the older Brendan, looks scarily like the real Brendan Behan. In some ways, that was the most powerful part of the show, especially since it’s autobiographical. It really brings forward the reality of the story and makes it more powerful.
Had I seen Borstal Boy five weeks ago, however, I never would have understood half of it. Not only does the main character refer to problems going on at the current time of World War II, but he refers to a lot events from before that caused some of the big rifts leading up to the War of Irish Independence.
Overall, the production was educational, hilarious, and entertaining in all ways. I truly believe it was one of the best performances I have attended.
Champlain Abroad Dublin, Fall 2014
Champlain College, Professional Writing, Class of 2016