Janet Behan tells Adam Shaw about her play which seeks to examine the long term effect of the Church on Irish women
Many would argue that the sometimes negative influence of the Catholic Church in Ireland is not a thing one should make light of. They might stress that those who were damaged as a result of the Church’s iron grip on a nation would find such tactics inappropriate, upsetting even. Others might go as far as to suggest that, since it was such a chastening part of Irish history, it is better to be stripped down to just the bare facts.
The playwright and actress Janet Behan doesn’t see it that way. She recognises the enormity of the subject. It can’t just be swept under the rug, it’s too big to ignore.
One way to engage with people about this issue is through theatre, and, if it happens to incorporate comedy and light-heartedness at points, it can often be even more captivating for an audience.
“We’re not just dealing with the Catholic Church of the day, but rather a system within which everybody lived where the State and the Church were complicit,” Janet explained. “People ended up doing what they did because they had no other choice.
“Here we have two women looking back and talking about the things that happened to them when they were young and how this has affected them for the rest of their lives.”
And that’s exactly it. It is not a case of trivialising pain but bringing it to light in a compelling manner.
Janet herself has seen firsthand the consequences of Church control on people in Ireland, with these memories forming the inspiration for her play Realtine/Noreen.
“It’s all within my lifetime,” she said. “I have relatives and contemporaries who experienced these things. I wrote Noreen years ago as I was the young English woman on the other side of the wall who could hear this woman ranting and raving. It was clear that she was not well.
“And Realtine was based on a story that happened to one of my pupils at a creative writing class I used to teach at an Irish centre in London.”
As she admitted, the Noreen part of the play had been lying around for some time but, instead of it being a sudden desire to bring it to an audience, it was a local one-woman production that sparked its resurrection. “I went to see a one-woman show by Jessica Higgs – the director of my play – and it was wonderful,” she said. But I thought to myself ‘Janet, you’re actually a little bit jealous, aren’t you?’
“So I dug the old thing out turned it into a monologue because I knew people liked the character even if I’d never actually done the play.”
A very wet day on the Beara Peninsula and the recollection of her creative writing student provided the opportunity to complete the script and she was all ready for a one-woman show of her own. Although Janet is very much aware of what happened in Ireland as well as her own Irishness, her relationship with the country was somewhat distant growing up.
“In those days, there was no Ryanair,” she said. “If you wanted to go to Ireland, you had to get on a train to Holyhead and then get on a boat.
“You had to deal with all kinds of drunken folk singer, with goodness knows what washing to and fro, and really Spartan accommodation. And we didn’t go over often because, in reality, my parents were very poor.”
Another relationship which could be described as distant was the one she with her uncle, the famous poet, playwright and novelist, Brendan Behan. Brendan died when his niece was only ten years old and, for all his success, he departed this world penniless. Janet referred to having a famous relative as “a mixed blessing”, though she fondly remembered her work on the play Brendan at the Chelsea.
“It was lovely for me to write that play and reconnect with Brendan and find out so much about him,” she explained.
“I had a lovely trip across to New York, where I met Stanley Bard at the hotel and it was great to work with Adrian Dunbar who is a big Behan fan himself.
“Personally, I wouldn’t knock it in any way but I think it was difficult for my father to have such a famous and such a successful brother – as a young man, it really marked him.”
Realtine/Noreen is intended for everyone; as Janet noted, “Ireland is not the only theocracy in the world”. But she also believes it is important for people to appreciate that, though many were affected by the collusion between Church and State, the majority were women. “It is something we, as people, have to watch and, as women, we certainly have to watch,” she said. “If there is ever any oppression knocking about, we always seem to be the first to be targeted.”
For a week in London and on another date near her home in Shoreham-by-Sea, she will hope to convey the plight of two women affected in different ways by their run-ins with the Catholic Church. Understandably, she is a little apprehensive but she remains upbeat and her excitement is unmistakable.
“I’m cautiously optimistic and it will be very interesting to see if they laugh or not,” she said. “I hope they will, well, not at the sad bits, obviously. But I think I’ve always been a comedienne at heart so Realtine has the potential to go down well.
“I don’t think it ever occurred to me, when I said I’d do it, that I’d never done a one-woman show before and had no idea what it’s like.”
After 62 years, she’s about to find out.