Theatre: A gay demise

Casement Riverside, Hammersmith
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The Independent Culture
The downfall of Sir Roger Casement leads you to the conclusion that, in 1916, being known to have indulged in buggery was considered by the Establishment a more heinous crime than high treason. A British Consul, born of an Ulster family, Casement had won an international reputation for his reports on the savage exploitation of native labour by white traders in the Congo and by the Putumayo River.

His experience in these regions had intensified his Republican sympathies and so, with the outbreak of the First World War, he took advantage of the situation to try to enlist German help in the fight for Irish independence. But, on the eve of the Easter Rising, he was arrested shortly after landing in Ireland from a German submarine. What scotched appeals to stay his execution and gave the nervous British government the confidence to carry it out was the discovery and private circulation of his diaries. Containing detailed references to his gay activities, these pages constituted his death warrant.

The irony of this is not lost on Alex Ferguson's engrossing new play, though sexuality is only one of the elements woven into the fine portrait it offers of a complex, tragic nature. Aided by a wonderful performance from Corin Redgrave (who co-directs with Gillian Hambleton), you're brought to see how, as with all the best tragic figures, the weaknesses of the man are intimately related to his strengths. This is clearly the case here with Casement's outspokenness.

Beginning with his knighthood, the action swiftly moves to Berlin and his desperate gamble. There's an injured solitariness about Redgrave's Casement, a sense that his judgement is flawed because he's on a different wavelength. The liabilities consequently inherent in his romantic idealism can be seen in the episode where he goes to drum up an army among the Irish prisoners of war and is rudely rebuffed. He has failed to calculate that the war, which has given him the opportunity for this mission, has also created intense bonds of loyalty between these Irish soldiers and their dead comrades. "A bloody Fenian bought with German gold" is how they dismiss him.

Duped by false promises from the Germans and by the phoney affection of a shallow, sponging Norwegian boyfriend (Ravil Isyanov) who is selling his secrets to the British, a despairing Casement needs to get to Ireland to abort the Easter Rising he now knows is bound to fail. In the tragicomic episode of his homecoming on the shore of Tralee, it's Redgrave's great achievement to make you find Casement's response both intensely moving and more than mildly irritating in its mix of spiritual peacefulness (as though he were experiencing some interlude of grace) and fatal lack of circumspection.

During the sections on his imprisonment and trial, explicatory flashbacks are interspersed with the scenes showing his present humiliation (sodomised with a huge pole by homophobic soldiers, say) and the calculating conversations between the prime minister, Asquith (Stephen Macdonald), and Lewis Jones's Sir William Tyrell, who, in an all-too English distinction, describes Casement as a "day boy" to their boarders. I wasn't sure about the Irish jig at the end, which, breaking free from dramatic cause and effect, brings all the cast together in a wishful barrier-breaking unity. But the rest can be strongly recommended.

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Paul Taylor