Featuring Michael Bates as Roger Casement
Written by Arnold Thomas Fanning
Directed by Paul Kennedy
In the post-show discussion that followed Saturday night’s performance of this new play, Arnold Fanning was asked by co-panellist Martina Devlin why he didn’t include the trial and all that followed. He said that we know all that already and what seemed important to him was to show Casement’s last moments of freedom. The time he spent in McKenna’s Fort waiting to be rescued/captured was his Gethsemane.
The play is powerful. Michael Bates embodies different aspects of Casement’s character – the humanitarian, the patriot and the sexual being – so effectively that you’re aware of a scene change when he makes the shift, simply by how he holds himself or by a shift in tone of voice. Assisted by clever lighting and minimal props, it’s extraordinary to see the performer enter new dimensions of the complex, extraordinary person that Casement undoubtedly was. For people who don’t know much about the man, other than his tragic, controversial trial and execution, this play will be a revelation, bringing other aspects of his fascinating life to the fore, notably his humanitarian work in the Congo and in Peru.
One of the questions from the audience asked Arnold Fanning what his intention was in writing the play the way he did. There was a puzzled moment before Fanning replied that his intention was not to bore the audience, which got an appreciative response from those of us – most of us, actually – who had stayed behind to hear the discussion. But seriously, Fanning said, his aim is to create characters, a goal he has certainly achieved in this play.
Someone in the audience observed that Fanning’s play is proof of the power of art, because fictionalised and imagined scenes are so effective at evoking a sense of the man.
A lovely feature of the post-show discussion was Fanning’s honest account of the writing of the play, how he travelled to Peru after finishing his initial reading (the diaries, Séamus Ó Síocháin’s biography) but found himself stuck, unable to write anything on the first day. Little by little, he began to do things that Casement did while he was there, and slowly points of overlap between himself and his subject began to emerge. He compiled a ‘dense’, novel-like first draft, after which there was a period of intensive workshopping and rehearsal which brought Casement to life.
Michael Bates and Paul Kennedy said that they had a period of unease about working with material from the diaries, but they agreed that they would proceed as though Casement was in the room with them – and this approach worked. There’s nothing sensationalist or prurient about the play, which acknowledges a frankly enjoyable sexual life. The one jarring note of the night came when a woman in the audience was overcome at the mention of a penis and laughed into her companion’s shoulder, loudly and more than once. Why does this still happen in Irish theatres? It’s a mystery.
Eibhear Walsh remarked that this is the real hidden story, that other than Casement’s diaries, we don’t have many accounts of the intimate sexual development of nineteenth century figures. Someone in the audience commented on how they appreciated the physicality of Bates’s performance and the play’s references to Casement’s illness and debilitation – which makes his extraordinary life even more extraordinary.
Get to see this if you can.
[Panellists: Mary Moynihan, Martina Devlin, Eibhear Walsh, Arnold Fanning, Michael Bates, Paul Kennedy]