James Connolly, Henry Joy McCracken and Roger Casement are three great, complicated heroes of Ireland’s struggle for independence; and there have been three fine plays about them in this month’s Mayfesto season at the Tron, reflecting on 1916’s Easter Rising in Dublin.
Shall Roger Casement Hang? | Rating: ***** | Tron Theatre, Glasgow
Of the three, though, there’s no doubt that the Tron’s own production of this new 85-minute play by Peter Arnott stands out, for its combination of near-perfect craftsmanship, high political intelligence, and sheer dramatic force.
Set at Easter 1916 in prison cells at Scotland Yard, Brixton Jail and the Tower of London, Shall Roger Casement Hang? consists of two conversations between the prisoner Casement and British interrogator Captain Hall, followed by a brief final monologue. Casement has been picked up on the west coast of Ireland, where he has been put ashore by a German U-boat; despite his British establishment credentials as a diplomat knighted for his efforts for king and country, Casement’s support for Irish independence has led him into a wishful association with Britain’s enemies, who he once believed might help the Irish uprising.
Yet despite all this, in their first conversation Captain Hall is correct and even amiable, offering Casement every chance to escape the threatened charge of high treason. It’s only in the second dialogue, after the rebellion in Dublin has broken out, and Hall – searching Casement’s London flat – has found an diary of his homosexual exploits abroad, that the British state, in the person of this quiet Scottish naval man, begins to show its mailed fist.
As Casement and Hall, Benny Young and Stephen Clyde give two near-flawless performances; Hall as the conventional Edwardian Scot outraged by Casement’s twin rebellions against the glory of the Empire and the iron code of secrecy about homosexuality, Casement as a radical, dreamer and outsider whose attitudes seem to prefigure our own times, and our own constitutional debate. Arnott’s dialogue is pitch-perfect, spare and finely balanced; every other aspect of Andy Arnold’s production offers quietly impressive support, from Carys Hobbs’s design and Karen Bryce’s lighting to Barry McCall’s fine sound design of faintly echoing prison noise.
And as the tissue of truth, lies and dreams that has been Casement’s life reaches its inevitable end, Arnott leaves us with the strangest feeling that in order to create change, we may sometimes have to reject reality altogether and live – like Casement – as if the new times we yearn for were already in reach.
• Tron Theatre, Glasgow, until 28 May