Prisoner of the Crown
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 18, 2008
Prisoner of the Crown, the current play at Irish Repertory Theatre, tangles with complicated and probably unknowable history to raise some provocative and timely questions. Its subject is Sir Roger Casement, an Irish patriot who achieved fame as a civil servant in Africa, where he exposed the inhuman treatment by King Leopold of the Congo natives forced into hard labor on rubber plantations; and then in Peru, where he uncovered and documented similar atrocities perpetrated against the Putumayo Indians. For these serviced to humanity, Casement was knighted by King George V in 1911.
Casement's notoriety sprang from events that occurred almost immediately afterward. He became a leader of the Irish nationalist movement and, as part of an effort to gain Ireland's independence from Britain, entered into various negotiations with Germany (with whom Britain went to war in 1914). When he returned to the U.K. from Germany, he was apprehended and eventually charged with treason—a crime that he probably technically had not committed. But the British authorities were hungry for a conviction, and got one. (All of this is detailed on Wikipedia and on the BBC's website.)
As if all of this contradictory material—the story of how a hero of the Empire became its bitter enemy—weren't complex enough, there's another piece to Casement's tale. During his trial, copies of a diary alleged to be his appeared—a diary that contained entries about Casement's supposed homosexual affairs with natives in South America and other (for the time) lurid information. The diaries helped turn sentiment against him. Were they real, or were they forgeries?
Richard F. Stockton, author of Prisoner of the Crown, and Richard T. Herd, conceiver of the play as well as contributor of additional material to it, seem to believe that the diaries were fabricated, which makes their play mostly a cogent and compelling exposure of the underhanded ways that people in power will ensure that they keep their power and that those who oppose them are punished. Sir Frederick Smith, prosecutor of the case against Casement, particularly embodies the insidious ends-justify-all-means ethos that the authors are attacking, and as portrayed by John Windsor-Cunningham (in the production's strongest performance), it's easy to see how little things have changed in the past century.
Pushing their agenda in this direction, Stockton and Herd have given less attention to the homophobic aspects of the case, which are disturbing enough if Casement were in fact heterosexual but are particularly problematic if the diaries were real. The play uses a framing device of the jury charged with deciding Casement's fate debating the evidence, and a certain amount of lip-service is given to the notion that Casement's private proclivities have no bearing on his achievements or on his possible commission of treason. But this line of discourse is quickly abandoned; and though it feels efficacious to allow the play to focus on just one egregious social issue, it's disappointing that the play ultimately fails to deal forthrightly with this most sensational aspect of the case.
Ciarán O'Reilly's production of Prisoner of the Crown is compelling but not without its problems. Charles Corcoran's abstract set, which is framed by a platform across the rear of the stage and a runway or catwalk along one other wall, doesn't do a very good job of defining locations and in fact seems to work against effective use of the small stage area. Zachary Williamson's sound design includes a lot of jazzy music that might be appropriate for a film noir but feels at odds with both the British setting and the authentically serious subject matter. O'Reilly has cast seven men and one woman to play dozens of roles, and in addition to Windsor-Cunningham, several do excellent work: John C. Vennema contributes a strong turn as the judge and Emma O'Donnell plays Casement's fiery cousin Gertrude Bannister with conviction. But in the central role, Philip Goodwin seems miscast, lacking the magnetism and inner passion that a firebrand like Casement must have possessed; he's also not nearly as physically impressive as photos of Casement suggest the real man was.
Nevertheless, for its unearthing of a story of a miscarriage of justice that most of us probably know nothing about—and for reminding us of the seemingly relentless machinery of corruption that our institutions somehow foster—Prisoner of the Crown is most welcome on the New York City stage in this belated premiere (the play debuted in Dublin more than 30 years ago!). Give it your attention: it will offer much food for thought.