Reviewed by Sarah Krasnow
The program for Prisoner of the Crown includes a timeline of major events in the life of the subject, Sir Roger Casement. This historical drama by Richard F. Stockton and Richard T. Herd informs: the question is, does it also entertain, inspire, and move? Satisfying all these requirements puts a lot of strain on the authors of a bio-drama (even Aaron Sorkin had a hard time). The good news is, Prisoner of the Crown entertains. Due to the tightness of the writing, it often inspires. Now and then, it moves. However, for the most part, it plays out like a live performance at an Irish history museum, albeit one of unusually high quality.
Prisoner of the Crown begins with a touch of narration from the endearingly mop-haired Patrick Fitzgerald as an unnamed Welsh sentry. More of his narration pops up now and again, but Stockton and Herd (officially, the play is by Stockton, with “additional material and original concept” by Herd; I’ll credit them both here) know to use it sparingly, as the rolling action and chameleon-like actors need little help in telling this story of an Irish patriot or English traitor, depending on your point of view. Roger Casement was born in Ireland to Irish-born parents in 1864 and was knighted in 1911 by King George V for exposing abuses of colonizing powers in South America and Africa, most famously the horrific treatment of the Congolese by King Leopold’s Belgian troops. It was when he tried his hand at winning Irish independence that Casement got in trouble: during World War I, he attempted to obtain a pledge of German support for a free Ireland and to incite Irish prisoners of war in Germany to an uprising. Caught as he returned to England, he was eventually hanged for treason. To prevent martyrdom, his enemies in the government released alleged diary pages describing his frequent participation in homosexual activities.
The events of Casement’s life as a prisoner unfold swiftly in Prisoner of the Crown, with each performer taking on multiple roles (one as many as seven). We begin with the jurors who have just heard the accused’s case, all in gray suits and glasses. Then lights dim, makeshift tables roll, and the scenes of Casement’s capture, imprisonment, banishment to the foul Cell 4 in the Tower of London, and the rest unfold to the tune of informative dialogue that could have been boring, but isn't, spoken with effortless shifts in English or Irish accent as the actors assume their various characters. Staccato scenes offer peeks at jury deliberation, creating just enough variety in the linear action without turning chronology on its head. Enemies conspire against Casement and friends try to help him, and the jury fills in much of the rest, neatly parsing out the exposition to keep the lecture factor to a minimum (though the use of an echo apparently tries to mimic the sound of speech in a cell, but unfortunately recalls a narrated museum diorama). Scene shifts happen with the dimming of the lights and the playing of a catchy but ominous saxophone-led soundtrack, the actors stepping and swaying in time, distracting us as with song and dance as sleights of hand go on right under our noses.
Scene changes happen literally with a whirl, as the precise cast removes spectacles or unfurls sheets and rotates into position. Indeed, the cast exudes precision and the audience never gets confused as to who is playing whom at what moment, despite all the overlap. The changes are clear yet subtle, but so subtle, in fact, and so brief is each character’s appearance on stage, that really the only critiqueable performance comes from Philip Goodwin as Roger Casement and his lone sympathetic juror. Goodwin plays both these characters with the careful articulateness of a just-minded and educated man, just barely masking the panic his situation engenders. His Casement, though, wallows in a gentle melancholy until his death. Surely the man who braved jungles on two continents and took on the king of Belgium had a tougher side to him.
In Act II, Stockton and Herd move away from the bio-drama motif and let the audience stretch their minds a bit. As the solicitors at Casement’s trial bicker over a technicality in treason law, unresolved for 600 years, and sidestep the issue of the defendant’s “diaries,” we participate, weighing our own notions of what constitutes treason in wartime and considering the difficulties in discounting an irrelevant, probably fabricated, but nonetheless unsavory blot on a defendant’s character. And here we really get to the point this play is meant to drive home: even in wartime, a nation’s laws still stand, whether it’s fighting in World War I, or, say, the Middle East somewhere. Casement’s prosecutor even uses the word “fairytale” in a reference that may fade over time but on this night got a big hoot of recognition from the audience. When Casement is hanged, we expect a blackout as the stool is pulled from his legs, but in a neat tech trick, Goodwin remains there swinging from the noose until the Welsh sentry delivers the closing lines. A play that began mostly with prelection ends with some power.
The Irish Repertory Theatre houses an unusual stage. Stage left lands flush against the wall, with the right corner and edge free, allowing for seats directly in front of the stage and 90 degrees to the side. Such a configuration gives the audience a narrow sightline, and in a production as information-heavy as this one, it’s hard to shake the museum diorama effect (having sat in the side section in the past, I assume those folks felt on the fringes of the museum crowd, getting only the side view of the display). We museum-goers marvel at the quality of the display, the skill with which it was assembled, and the important education it offers us. Still, we are peering at something encased in glass. The uncased impressionist paintings in the next room will probably stick in our memories, and certainly in our hearts, for longer.