First published in The Times, Tuesday May 24 2016
To say that Roger Casement was a complex and paradoxical figure is something of an understatement. A Protestant, born to an Anglo-Irish family, he worked as a diplomat for the British government, receiving a knighthood. Yet he is remembered today as the revolutionary Irish nationalist who attempted to enlist German military aid for the 1916 Easter Uprising.
“I have developed a number of voices,” acknowledges Casement (Benny Young) at the outset of Peter Arnott’s play, which invites us to chew over such intricacies of identity as well as oppression in its many forms, political action and responsibility. Rather than attempting to illuminate his protagonist in monologue form, Arnott gains a more satisfying purchase on his historical research by dramatising Casement’s initial interview at Scotland Yard, following his arrest in Co Kerry three days before the uprising.
Pic: John Johnston
The slow-building tension of these scenes of interrogation reveals much about attitudes on both sides of the legal and political divide. Casement gradually opens up about his distrust of imperialism, forged during his pioneering investigations into forced labour and human rights atrocities in colonial Africa.
Facing him across the interview table is the cool and measured Captain Hall (Stephen Clyde), who at first appears inclined to offer his celebrated prisoner an escape from the hangman’s noose with a plea bargain. Hall’s dismissal of Irish nationalists as “children” inadvertently chimes with Casement’s objection to the infantilism and debasement of colonised peoples. “We don’t exist for you except when we’re dangerous,” he protests.
Pic: John Johnston
What rouses Hall to violence (and what appears to have done for Casement, who was executed for high treason) is the discovery of a diary detailing the captive’s sexual encounters, real or imaginary, with young men. Hall’s anger at Casement’s opposition to Britain and her empire is aggravated by disgust at what he sees as the man’s betrayal of his sex. To contemporary eyes, of course, Casement’s reluctance to suppress either aspect of his disposition is what makes him heroic.
As befits the complexities of his subject, Arnott’s play is a dense piece of writing that occasionally labours under the weight of its historical backstory. After a hesitant opening the piece gains levity in Andy Arnold’s production (part of the Tron’s Mayfesto season) from scenes of flashback to Casement’s arrest, recollections of his time in Africa, video footage of the uprising and ironic references to Scotland’s own quest for a settled identity. The final encounter between Casement and his inquisitor is particularly effectively staged, with both actors responding expertly to the nuances of the writing.