When I first decided to take off the tap shoes and concentrate on theatre directing, Dominic Dromgoole got in touch to ask if I’d like to do something with Oxford Stage Company. My reaction was negative. What I enjoy most about directing is the chance of working things out with the writer, plus I need their approval and I like the chat. I didn’t want to work on dry, old plays written by the dry, old dead. Luckily for me, he ignored my ignorance, phoned back a year later and said: ‘What about The Quare Fellow by Brendan Behan? It’s not been done for 20 years, bit neglected. It’s the one set in a prison, loads of blokes but a bit odd and tricky.’
I remembered reading the play. I’d read all Behan’s plays years ago along with Borstal Boy (his most famous book, bought for me by my dad) and various biographies written about him. If you were second-generation Irish, there was enough great writing and enough great people to choose from if you wanted to understand your roots and my main man was Brendan.
I drifted off with myself for a bit, thinking about the old friend. At 16, you could ask me anything about Behan’s plays and I would bore the arse off you for hours with my wit and knowledge. Aah, I thought, I’ll have no problemo with this one.
Looking at The Quare Fellow again some 20 years later, it shocked me how hard I found rereading it. The premise is simple enough. It takes place the day before and the morning of a hanging; easy enough to find an atmosphere there but the language had become alien, the structure seemed all over the place. I kept losing track of who was who and I didn’t find the jokes funny. Also, a play set in a prison with no fisticuffs or even a hint of a rape was a wee bit strange. Where was the fucking drama? I shat myself, so I phoned Dominic back and said yes.
A couple of months later, I was reading this and that and drinking with this and that, all in the name of relearning about Behan. I had to. Everything I thought I knew had gone out the window. Self-obsession, spliffs and the odd shandy over the years had nothing to do with it of course – I was just older.
There are bundles of stuff written about and by him, more than enough to choose from and he comes across as one of those characters who did his own thing in his own way but was seemingly totally entertaining. He had a twinkle about being bisexual, loved to sing and was a bit of a wind-up merchant. There was a dark side, too, but that’s not surprising when you think he was on the booze from around about aged eight (rewards for having a brilliant mind) and he was known to get a bit mouthy here and there and act the clown which some people, of course, didn’t like. He’d also been a political prisoner and this gave great credit to his writing; he’d been there, done that. And even though he comes across as a bit of a loon at times, he was and still is deeply loved by many.
I was delighted that I still liked the man. Never mind the drinking and the rebellion, which were obviously what impressed me when I was young; now it was his warmth, wit and sense of fun that pulled me back. But I still had problems with the play.
The text I was working from was the one they did at Stratford East with Joan Littlewood directing. Now, she was a genius who put Behan on the map, but I felt what they did with the play was great for 1956 but not so great for now. Along with the doubts I mentioned earlier, it was a bit diddily-di for my liking and I found the songs, which Littlewood had added, softened it too much. There’s a vaudeville feel to it which I liked, but in a lot of ways I found it frustrating. Blimey, like a dodgy arranged marriage, I was committed but not in love. I began to doubt that I was the right person for the job. I needed to think, man.
I had a drink, then another. I needed to squirm into it, understand it word for bloody overwritten word. I sat down at the laptop and started to copy the play out in proper, big-page script form from the book. And I mean copy it, as in type it. (And I don’t mean adapt it – I wasn’t being clever – I mean copy it.) Hours flew by without my noticing. I switched the phone off. I drank coffee when I normally drink tea; I played records from the Thirties and Forties instead of listening to the radio; I smoked even more than usual. It was fantastic. Acting out the writer without having to do any of the graft, it was like posh colouring-in. But the best thing was that it worked.
Suddenly, I could see all the jumbled-up characters (there’s 23 of them) and they helped me get below the surface. The play is so repetitive and everything is so spelt out that it was blooming hard finding the heart of it, but now things were getting clearer and the nothing-happeningness of it didn’t bother me at all because it was filled with such a brilliant bunch of misfits. Everything that was needed was there. I just had to do a bit of twiddling with bits of dialogue and I was doubtful still about a couple of the songs, but it felt like it could work. It felt for the first time like a new play set in the late Forties instead of an old play stuck in a rut. I could now get on with the job.
I got together with David Roger who was on board to design the set. We scratched our heads for yonks over it. This is a touring production with a very small budget, so it’s full of problems (prisoners shouting out of cell windows etc. Where the frig do you put them?) and we knew we didn’t want it to be an accurate layout of Mountjoy (Dublin’s jail where the play is based). We looked at old photos, read articles about ‘the Joy’, chatted away with Chris Davey and Fergus O’Hare (lighting and sound respectively) and together we’ve come up with a simple but effective way of making it work.
Phillip Chevron was on next to do the music. I first met Phil about 15 years ago when he used to play with the Pogues and I used to jump up and down in front of them. He’s the perfect man for the job, a Dubliner with a fantastic knowledge of music and a massive fan of theatre.
Getting the cast together was great fun. Dominic worked out 23 characters could be done with 17 actors. SEVENTEEN MEN. Of course, there was a lot of nudge, nudge, wink, wink from mates about that one. To my shame, I only knew a handful of Irish actors but word had got out that the play was happening and I started to get letters from Behan fans who wanted to be a part of it, no matter how small the role.
Some people got it wrong, of course. My association with Jonathan Harvey (Beautiful Thing, Gimme Gimme Gimme) probably had something to do with that, with at least four letters expressing an interest in being in The Queer Boy by Brenda Behan.
I had a laugh flitting about seeing various plays with an Irish theme, the best being a production of The Lieutenant of Inishmore which I saw in Manchester. I found four actors from that one but then frightened Dominic with a text message saying I’d offered parts to three ushers and a barman. About five days before Christmas, the whole cast was on board and I was chuffed to bits with the lot of them.
Two weeks before rehearsals, I was cool, calm and collected. A week later, not so good. What the hell was I doing? Then I got an email from a bloke who said his dad thought he was at school with my dad in Galway. He scanned down a class photo to me and then, for the first time in my life, I saw a photo of Paddy Burke as a child. He stood out a mile off, the old man in shorts, letting me know it was a grand idea.
We’re now in rehearsal and so far so good. The vibe is generous and everyone’s mucking in. I was going to go on about the process but to be honest it sounds like wank. Just come and see it and if you don’t like theatre, get yourself a copy of Borstal Boy – it’s a great read by a great man.
Life and times of an improbable goddess
1964 Born at the Royal Free hospital in north London on 13 June.
1970s and 80s Trains at the Anna Scher drama school in Islington. Scher describes her as ‘the funniest woman on television and one of the most empathetic actors I know’.
1982 Swedish director Mai Zetterling casts 17-year-old Kathy in Scrubbers, a low-budget women-in-prison drama. Advises her to ‘make sure they don’t put you on the corner and make you a clown. Graft hard, write, produce, do different types of work, find out everything there is to know about this job and then you will have power… never be a puppet letting others pull the strings.’
1990 Writes and directs Mr Thomas, starring Ray Winstone, at the Old Red Lion theatre in Islington. ‘I’d do bits of directing, or stage management jobs at the Old Red Lion when I wasn’t acting. I always wanted to be versatile because of the way I speak and how I look.’
1990 Starts working with Harry Enfield, a collaboration that will extend to the 2000 film, Kevin and Perry Go Large. According to Enfield: ‘She’s a natural – and not just at comedy. She’s lovable, she’s got people’s sympathy. The thing about her is that you feel for her. If you don’t like someone, then you can’t find them funny. There are so many people who are in love with Kathy – including my dad. He’s excited about me getting married because it means he’ll get to meet Kathy at the wedding.’
1993 Wins a Royal Television Society award for her performance in Mr Wroe’s Virgins, which includes a nude scene. ‘I must be the only actress in history who has been asked to be naked for untitillating reasons. It was as if the producers thought, “We want to make sure people don’t get off on this – we’ll get Kathy Burke.”‘
1993 Spends four months working with Mike Leigh on his play, It’s a Great Big Shame, at Stratford East. Leigh calls her ‘one of my favourite actresses’.
1994 Plays abused beauty therapist Sharon in the BBC’s Common as Muck: ‘I liked her because she wanted to start again. Lots of women get involved with someone who’s not good for them and don’t realise they can escape.’
1995 Directs Jonathan Harvey’s play Boom Bang-a-Bang at the Bush Theatre, a relationship she repeats in 2001 with his Out in the Open at the Hampstead Theatre. Harvey gushes: ‘Like Judi Dench or Julie Walters, Kathy is someone people want to spend time with… She could play Eva Braun and you’d warm to her.’
1997 Wins best actress at Cannes for her performance as Ray Winstone’s wife in Nil by Mouth, the directing debut of her old teenage boyfriend, Gary Oldman. ‘I’d see Kath every day of my life if we weren’t both so busy… making Nil by Mouth, we laughed all the time. I’d beat her up in front of the camera, then we’d go over to the pub for a drink,’ says Winstone.
1999 Stars as Linda in Harvey’s sitcom Gimme Gimme Gimme, for which she wins a British Comedy Award as best actress in 2002. Kathy’s modest verdict: ‘About fucking time.’
2002 Makes her last film appearances before directing full-time, in Shane Meadows’s Once Upon a Time in the Midlands and the adaptation of Meera Syal’s novel, Anita and Me. Syal sums up most people’s feelings: ‘Kathy Burke, you are a goddess.’
By Kathy Burke. Original article.