Peter Arnott’s Shall Roger Casement Hang?, drawn from the transcripts of Roger Casement’s two day interrogation at Scotland Yard at the time of the 1916 Easter Rising, is a provocative and dramatic insight into this British Diplomat, Irish Revolutionary and human rights pioneer; a martyr, traitor and hero charged with treason and executed by the British government in August 1916.
Arnott’s play derives an incredible nuance and complexity from its seemingly simple structure and form. Throughout the verbal sparring Arnott threads political complexity, layering revelations about Casement’s collusion with Germany, his work in the Belgian Congo and his homosexuality gradually, accumulating in a drama that is engaging, accessible and always turning, always shifting position as the events of the Easter Rising unfold.
Benny Young presents a morally ambiguous protagonist, deep-set in his convictions that often contradict, moving between thoughts with subtlety that draws the audience in, pushing them to want to understand, to hang on his every word. Stephen Clyde, as his interrogator and representative of the British Government, Captain Hall, is entirely convincing as he shifts from confidant to oppressor. The duo are engaging to watch, delivering the verbose text with a precision that ensures the words, nor the audience, ever get lost.
Carys Hobbs’ design, a cell where the wooden flooring stretches to the audience, dominated overhead by iron bars, is intimidating, foregrounding where the power lies in the exchanges between Hall and Casement. There are very few props, and everything on stage is used to good effect. As the uprising unfolds and the complexities of the protagonist become apparent, so the set opens out too. Kim Beveridge’s visuals break out of the space, and anchor the work to its wider context of colonial oppression and the hundreds who lost their lives in those six days one hundred years ago.
As their dialogue inevitably descends into physical conflict, the production unfortunately loses its effectiveness. The stage combat is poor and unconvincing, lacking either the realism or style to effectively convey the significance these moments are desired to have. The allusions this physical culmination to the play strives for – to the violence of imperial Britain, and to the violence continually perpetrated on grounds of race and sexual orientation – are diluted in a series of weak punches.
This is a work that feels utterly relevant, re-considering this hero, martyr and traitor against the wider backdrop of post-referendum Scotland and the re-imagining of sexual identity happening on both sides of the Irish border. Shall Roger Casement Hang? provides a fitting culmination to this year’s excellent Mayfesto, which has been equally provocative and timely.