Reviewed by David Spencer
Well, it's curious. Watching Prisoner of the Crown at the Irish Rep, I was dead certain it was an Irish or British play that had been imported, but, no, it's a play written by two Americans that was originally produced at the Abbey (Ireland's national theatre) in 1972; the first play by Americans to have a world debut there.
The historical figure at its center, Roger Casement (Philip Goodwin), seems to have had a remarkable impact on British letters and literature as an inspiration to such as Shaw, Conan Doyle and Yeats—due to his exploits as an adventurer in the Congo—but when he turned his attentions to securing recognition for an independent Ireland from Germany, after the outbreak of WWI, the act was viewed by the authorities as treason. Secret diaries of his—recording graphic homosexual encounters—were exposed and distributed to further impugn his character, and after a proper legal railroading, he was hung in 1916.
What's curious is that, as controversially notable as Casement would seem to be, he isn't even a blip on the radar to a US sensibility, yet this play about him, by Richard F. Stockton, conceived and with additional material by Richard T. Herd, is written as if his story might be well known to us. By which I mean, it starts out with the announcement that he was the last British Lord to be executed for treason. Alas, announcing Stockton's fate at the top leaches the narrative of almost all its suspense—because implicit in the announcement is the thesis that he need not have been (else why spend an evening on the procedures leading to his death sentence?). The play thus takes on the burden of trying to rouse us by way of moral outrage toward a pre-determined ending alone. But the manner of its cool, documentary approach, in which the ensemble play multiple parts (even Mr. Goodwin doubles as his own swing-vote juror) is about as stirring as a homework assignment. And that's despite Ciaran O'Reilly's clean and efficiently paced direction of a likewise solid, if unremarkable, cast. Indeed, even the play's ending, in which a narrating actor wryly comments that such injustices would never happen in today's enlightened world, would they (nudge, nudge)? further distances us, because it leaves us nothing to conclude for ourselves.
This is the kind of "tribunal" play that the Brits—with such as Breaker Morant and Conduct Unbecoming—and even occasionally us Yanks, with such as The Andersonville Trial—(all of which have been famously filmed and/or recorded for television)—have notably done quite well, each of us concentrating on the controversial figures germane to our nationality...but this—I have to say it again—curious hybrid in which American dramatists chronicle the British rousting of an Irishman seems to miss the mark by the standards of several continents. And I wonder if it's because a first-hand national sensibility isn't present; or because the attempt to emulate another sensibility is inadequate? Then again...it could just be uninspired dramaturgy...