Five years or so after being knighted for his contribution to the Consular Service, Roger Casement was hanged as a traitor to His Majesty: the former ennoblement was due largely to his report on atrocities in the Belgian Congo, the latter execution to his attempt to run German guns into Ireland for use in the Easter Rising of 1916. Alex Ferguson's play concentrates on Casement the fervent Irish separatist, painting him as an heroic idealist and little else.
The play follows a traditional two-act "great man's fall" structure. Act One chronicles Casement's sojourn in a Germany at war with Britain: negotiating supplies of arms, trying and failing to enlist Irish prisoners-of-war into an "Irish brigade" to fight for their own land's freedom, financially indulging his bodyguard and lover Adler Christensen, and suffering grief on the revelation that Christensen had systematically betrayed him to the British. On his final return to Ireland (by German submarine), Casement had not even left the beach on which he landed when the Royal Irish Constabulary arrested him for importing arms – a single Luger pistol in his knapsack. Cue interval.
In Act Two Ferguson deals with Casement's imprisonment in the Tower of London, alleged brutalisation by a sadistic military warder, his trial, conviction and ultimate execution. The incarceration scenes and final gallows episode are leavened by a series of dream/vision sequences which enlarge the canvas but do little to augment either the narrative or Casement's character.
Corin Redgrave is magnificent in the title role. By turns florid and hesitant, passionate and befuddled, his Casement is naively reliant on the justice of his cause to achieve what he lacks the force of character to bring about himself; in this reliance, of course, he is tragically mistaken. Politely if diffidently co-operative under interrogation, he even hands an officer the keys to his London home, knowing that this will lead to the discovery of diaries recording his homosexual encounters; Asquith's government subsequently used these diaries to discourage pleas for clemency towards Casement.
Redgrave is on stage for perhaps 90% of the play, and commands attention throughout, seemingly effortlessly. As Christensen, Ravil Isyanov is an appealing bit of rough who hides his treachery behind expletive-peppered hedonism. Both men give better performances than the play deserves.
For Ferguson's piece carries about it an air of gospel: he sets out to praise "the forgotten Irish hero, the bravest of Borioime's [sic] rebels," but fails almost entirely to infuse his play with the passion which motivated his protagonist. His account is arid, and also one-sided. Where David Rudkin, in an early radio play, used Casement to examine the malleability and conflict of historical accounts, Ferguson peddles a single hagiographic view; the occasional, token moments of doubt are unconvincing and clearly included out of a sense of dramatic obligation.
The production is saved from the morass of "worthiness", which has so bedevilled advance perceptions of Moving Theatre's season at the Riverside, only by Redgrave's central performance.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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