Saturday, 21 May 2016

Hanging @ The Tron

Roger Casement was 'on the right side of history'. As a revolutionary for Irish independence, and a homosexual who, in Peter Arnott's play, refuses to apologise for his orientation, he becomes more a victim of early twentieth century attitudes than the traitor he is called by the British state. The double 'crimes' he committed, a century later, would not be prosecuted today. The incriminating diary of his sexual activity, used by British Intelligence to discredit him, would probably be a best seller.

Arnott is too subtle a writer, however, to make a simple, ironic tragedy about a man out of time. Using a basic structure - two men are locked in verbal battle - his script teases out the complexity of political action, questions of honour and the thin line between idealism and violence.

Given Casement's rehabilitation after his death (he counts among the martyrs who died for an independent Ireland), his characterisation is strikingly ambiguous. His initial honesty and display of moral integrity - refusing to lie or implicate others who may yet be innocent - gives way to duplicity in the second half. Captain Hall, representing the British state, gives reasonable justifications for Casement's arrest, spending the first hour attempting to offer the prisoner escape routes from the gallows. Hall turns vicious after he realises that Casement was involved in the organisation of the Easter Sunday uprising, and reading his explicit diary. The blend of sexual paranoia and disappointment at Casement drives Hall to violence, finally assuming the mantle of colonial oppressor.

Arnott's script is less interested in the hallowed hero and imperial
stereotypes than the complexity of his protagonist's life. Casement's work in Africa (which he regards as a financial deal with the oppressive empire) made him a dashing Victorian hero, the inspiration for Conrad's Heart of Darkness and a dream-like interlude suggests that his experiences on the continent informed his attitude towards the British Empire. Benny Young captures an edgy, nervous energy, as Casement alternates between to desire to act the gentleman and protect his fellow activists. At one moment he is apologising for inconveniencing Hall: the next, he is describing his integrity in refusing to accept money from the German state. While his execution is tragic - and as a coda taen from George Bernard Shaw implies - unnecessary, Young's performance reveals a man ready to take responsibility, and pride, in his actions.

Stephen Clyde, as Hall and a few other characters - including a brutal Irish policeman - is a foil to Young's central role, but is given a presence and intelligence by the script. His initial concern and respect for Hall may disappear in a homophobic disgust, but his sadness at the brutality caused in response to Casement's conspiracy offers a picture of a colonial warden driven by duty rather than sadism. The power is clearly tilted towards him - he regards the Irish revolutionaries as 'children' and their defeat as a necessary punishment - yet he attempts to be just, and identifies the value of Empire within its belief in justice.

The possible relationship to Scotland's own independence is unspoken - and, despite the programme notes, tangential. It's clear that the stakes were higher for Ireland in 1916 (the activists ending up executed then). Although Casement is given dignity, and drawn as both a sexual and political revolutionary, the script is far too nuanced to leave a clear moral, but rather invites continued discussion on the morality of Casement's actions.

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