Prisoner of the Crown

The Irish Repertory Theatre

RICHARD F. Stockton's Prisoner of the Crown, currently playing at the Irish Repertory Theatre, begins in 1916 at the height of the British Empire, when Ireland, her oldest and most troublesome colony, makes a startling bid for independence.

History reminds us that bid was brutally crushed by the British government, which feared permitting Home Rule would start a chain reaction that would spell the end for the Empire. At the time it took a man like Sir Roger Casement, one of Ireland's most distinguished patriots, to understand that the collapse of the Empire was unavoidable anyway.

Stockton's play is based on the shocking details of Casement's trial, and we watch with increasing horror as backroom deals are made to secure his conviction. What unfolds over two acts is as strong a condemnation of British judicial malpractice as you are ever likely to see staged.

Director Ciaran O'Reilly has given this hard-hitting production a fast paced theatrical flair in keeping with the text. A rapid succession of scenes outline the details of Casement's life, then O'Reilly wisely pauses the action to explore its effect on the characters. With a script this episodic it can be difficult to keep an eye on all the principal players (there are 39 characters in all), and O'Reilly does well to focus the action and the narrative.

Casement was in many ways an unlikely Irish hero. A loyal subject of the British crown for most of his life, he had his eyes opened to the rough work that fueled the Empire while working for the British consular service. Posted to remote locations in Africa and South America, he won unexpected fame for his reports exposing the exploitation of the native peoples of the Belgian Congo and the Putumayo basin between Peru and Columbia.

Returning to Ireland, the parallels Casement saw between brutal imperial exploitation abroad and at home were unmistakable. The desperate poverty of the Irish people, their complete subjugation, appalled him and he resolved to act. Just two years after his knighthood he abandoned his career in the Foreign Service to join the Irish Nationalists, fighting for complete independence from Britain.

O'Reilly has assembled another strong cast to bring this remarkable play to life. John Windsor-Cunningham gives a great performance as the personification of perfidious Albion. Patrick Fitzgerald is excellent as the Welsh commentator with his own axe to grind. Emma O'Donnell skillfully highlights the cost of so much high-flying idealism on ordinary lives.

As Casement, Phillip Goodwin gives a nuanced performance, finding the pathos and the passion for justice that animates his character. And in scene after scene he finds himself in a familiar dramatic setting for so many Irish rebel leaders - giving a speech from the dock.

It was the so-called "black dairies," Casement's jauntily written accounts of his private sexual exploits, that prejudiced his trial in England's favor and eventually sealed his fate. As soon as news of Casement's homosexuality was broadcast, protests on his behalf lost their fervor and his jurors suddenly achieved a dramatic consensus.

Onstage O'Reilly consistently focuses on the poignancy of Casement's predicament - he was a brilliant and accomplished Irish Nationalist who had once been a supporter of the Empire; he was a cultured gay man who showed heroic fortitude throughout his adult life; he was an Irish patriot who had been knighted by the King. Rarely has the epic struggle between two nations been so personified in one human being.

In Prisoner of the Crown there is a lot of talk about whether the "black diaries" are forgeries or not. By the play's end we realize that we're asking the wrong question.

The British government wanted to hang a traitor and besmirch his legend by any means necessary. Just as they had with the famous Irish dramatist Oscar Wilde, the British establishment had become adept at playing to popular prejudice to rid themselves of their most eloquent critics.

The Irish ultimately replied that - straight or gay - Casement had died for Ireland, and they honored his sacrifice. When his coffin lay in state in Dublin's Garrison Church of the Sacred Heart, 165,000 mourners filed past to pay their respects.

The lesson was unmistakable - Casement's heroic efforts had helped to win Ireland's freedom. Britain's efforts had won the Empire only a few more years.

Prisoner of the Crown is now playing at the Irish Repertory Theatre, 132 West 22nd Street. For tickets call 212-727-2737.