What with the recent negotiations between the European Union and the British government regarding the Irish/Northern Ireland border, the revival of The Hostage by Jake Murray is quite timely. To fully grasp the multi-layered nature of the play, it’s helpful (but not absolutely essential) to know something of the author, Brendan Behan. Behan’s father imparted to him a love of literature, while his mother shaped his political development. As a young man Behan was a serving member of the Irish Republican Army. Following a short spell in prison, Behan concentrated on books, poetry and plays, but his experiences and political convictions permeated his writing. In 1958, Behan wrote The Hostage, a play loosely based on his Gaelic short play, An Giall.
Set in a ‘house of ill-repute’ in Nelson Street, Dublin, The Hostage is an unusual play. Head of the boarding house is Pat (Cal Lowry) – a ‘veteran’ from 1916’s Easter Rising who in his advanced years turns a blind eye to the various activities under his roof. Like Behan himself, Pat’s a former solder in the Irish Republican Army, but while he still feels strongly about some things, on other matters time has mellowed him. Within the play, the chief story in the news concerns an 18-year-old IRA activist, who is scheduled for execution the next day. In retaliation, Leslie Williams, a British conscript soldier, is seized by the IRA as a hostage. If the IRA prisoner is released, so will Williams, but the opposite is conversely true.
While the main plot is of a very serious nature, the characters in the play intentionally bring moments of levity and flit back and forth between prose and song – familiar ballads given a nationalist emphasis.
Structurally, the DNA of The Hostage can be found in Restoration comedies (where the hypocritical actions of the ‘pious’ are ridiculed) as well as the sitcom ‘Allo ‘Allo! (which has its own ‘Resistance’ and ‘occupying enemy’ narrowly missing each other). At the other end of the spectrum, the young British soldier who is set upon, and oblivious to Ireland’s history and politics can similarly be found in another story of The Troubles – Yann Demange’s ’71.
Through Pat we see a disillusionment with the calibre of the ‘present generation’ in the IRA – ascetic and serious-minded, but forgetting to enjoy the little things in life that make life enjoyable and worth living for. As for Eire itself, the identification of the Free State with Catholicism is not a development Pat thinks is beneficial, just the replacement of one ‘yoke’ with another. In contrast to this cynicism, Pat’s wife Meg hasn’t lost faith in the dream of a united Ireland and doesn’t see a distinction between ‘the Struggle’ in the past with Ireland’s situation ‘today’.
The Hostage has a large cast and it would seem unfair to single out any members for distinction. However, there are three or four who play their roles particularly well: Sophie Chandler as Meg, Nicola Bernadelle as Miss Gilchrist, Charis McRoberts as Teresa and Harry McBride as Monsewer.
© Michael Davis 2017
The Hostage played at the Patrick Centre @Birmingham Hippodrome from 6th-9th December.
Sophie Chandler – Meg
Eleanor Eves – Ropeen
Lauren Mead – Colette
Charis McRoberts – Teresa
Nicola Bernadelle – Miss Gilchrist
Cal Lowry – Pat
Jack Fogerty – Rio Rita
Andrew Lake – Mr Mulleady
Harry McBride – Monsewer
Charlie Kirkpatrick –– Volunteer
Sam Claridge – Leslie Williams
Rory Gradon – IRA Officer
Brandon Amersley – Princess Grace
Timo Teern – Russian Sailor
Peter Bell, Robert Roberts, Sean Morrison