Concerning Sir Roger Casement, who was knighted in 1911 and hanged for “high treason” (related to his work as a Southern Irish rebel) five years later, the play is a swirling collage of mordant imagery that both celebrates and condemns the unique nature of British society. Awash in shadowy satire, quick-cut bitterness, and rapier commentary about sexual mores, social graces, and the government’s role in both, there are times it seems it could have been ripped directly from yesterday’s headlines.
In fact Prisoner of the Crown is nearly 40 years of age (it played at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre in 1972), which only further proves that the more plays change the more they stay the same. Lines like “An Irish patriot or English traitor, take your pick” and “In time of war, everyone who goes swimming before dawn can be a threat” are so applicable to our own political (and theatrical climate) that certain audience members at the performance I attended let loose with screams of delighted recognition, as if King George V and President George W. Bush were one and the same.
But if the trials of Casement (played here by an appropriately suffering Philip Goodwin) are a timeless reminder of society’s inherently fickle nature (especially toward its heroes), the play’s methods of telling his story have aged rather less well. It combines music-hall comedy with you-are-there documentary and you-were-there historical recreation into a murky mélange of sounds, colors, and concepts that must have been riveting once upon a time but are old hat after nearly half a century of theatrical advancements.
Director Ciarán O’Reilly unleashes every weapon in his not-inconsiderable arsenal to freshen the play’s ideas, focusing on props, lights (Brian Nason), and modular set pieces (Charles Corcoran) to fashion this make-believe world in which reality might be the most fantastical comment of all. The twirling of a jacket in the air can change a set all by itself. The Welsh chorister (Patrick Fitzgerald), who pops up in the unlikeliest of places to offer vital historical context, is a severe ghost with a darkly comic bent. A second-long melting of a roomful of seamy reporters into Casement’s jury is executed without a hint of irony.
What’s missing is any sense of what light these conflicting presentation styles shed on the story. All that’s needed are a few spins around the cinematic wheel, both to expel 92 years of dust from the spokes and justify the wide map on which Casement’s case is laid out (the Old Bailey, the Tower of London, and a German POW camp are among the settings). But while what’s here does make for a lively two hours, much of it feels like a distraction from the serious issues at hand, which suggest in 2008 as they wouldn’t have in the 1970s that we haven’t come as far as we’d like to think we have.
Casement’s rushed-through judgment doesn’t need additional ornamentation to compel or outrage, at least today. That he was “hanged by a comma” (the nearly invisible punctuation mark located at the last moment in an ancient French statute key to the prosecution’s case) and tried in the court of public opinion thanks to the timely release of excerpts from his journals (which contained frank material of a homoerotic nature) are themselves relevant topics around which to build a story of the benefits and dangers of activism as seen from both sides of the bench.
Today, however, the excess is staggering, and dwarfs much that is good in O’Reilly’s production, which is highly watchable and, unfortunately, highly forgettable. Goodwin brings a good-natured sense of dubiousness to Casement, fulfilling the actor’s job of keeping you in the dark about his true motivations even if history (and the playwrights) have been less kind. Fitzgerald attacks his role with the tut-tutting relish of a self-taught historian. The rest of the cast, which includes John Windsor-Cunningham as Casement’s prosecutor Sir Frederick Smith and Emma O’Donnell as all this men’s world’s left-behind women, is likewise solid.
But they’re all on shaky ground trying to put across this jumbled combination of comedy and critique, which is as likely to jab you with a stiletto as with an elbow. Lightness and invention have always been cherished delivery mechanisms for harsh truths, but their use in Prisoner of the Crown too often belies the work’s underlying message that Casement’s life and death were no laughing matter.
Prisoner of The Crown