Prisoner of the Crown

  • Date:
    May 1, 2008
    Review by:
    Barbara Mehlman and Geri Manus.


    A Review by Barbara Mehlman and Geri Manus.

    George Bernard Shaw begged to write his closing address to the jury. Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a novel based on his adventures. W. B. Yeats wrote a poem about him. He was the inspiration for Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. He sailed through the Congo and Amazon jungles and freed the indentured slaves of the world's great powers. For these great deeds, he was knighted by King George V in 1911.

    Five years later, Sir Roger Casement was hanged from the gallows as a traitor.

    The trial that brought Sir Roger from the zenith to the nadir of political life is the story of "Prisoner of the Crown," now enjoying a successful run at Irish Rep, and it's unsettling from the very beginning as we witness the corruption of the British legal system all in the name of trying to keep the Irish in their place.

    Richard F. Stockton�s dramatization of Sir Roger's trial, using actual transcripts, is set in the Old Bailey and the minds of the jurors. The play features 49 characters, not the least of whom are defendant Sir Roger and the Attorneys General bent on his execution. The behind-the-scenes proceedings become more riveting than the trial itself, as deception and manipulation tip the scales of justice.

    Touted as one of the world�s great humanitarians and the conscience of the British world, Sir Roger -- also an Irish Patriot -- had gone to Germany in an attempt to secure a German declaration of support for an independent Ireland, and recruit POWs for what became known as the Easter Rising of 1916.

    Unable to get the support he was seeking, Sir Roger sailed back to Ireland in a German boat, ostensibly to call off the rebellion. Captured on Irish soil before he could accomplish this, he was dragged back to England to stand trial for high treason.

    To avoid creating yet another Irish martyr, the prosecution diverted the attention of the jurors with Sir Roger's illegally-seized journals and leaked them to the newspapers. Depicting graphic accounts of homosexual activity with young boys during his years as a consul in Mozambique, the sensational writings had a greater effect on the jurors' decision than the actual evidence itself.

    Passionate portrayals of pontificating justices, jurors, and Sir Roger himself, propel this play to its foregone conclusion. Whether or not justice was served is still debated today, as the infamous diaries are alternately authenticated and denounced as forgeries every decade or so, even as late as 2002.

    What else is on trial, as much as Sir Roger, is the British rule of law and those who swore to uphold it. If one is to be tried by a jury of one�s peers, as Sir Roger declares in his trial statements, then he should be tried in Ireland, by Irish. One Empire � one Crown � one rule of law supposedly applied to all the King's subjects. In this Empire on which the sun used to never set, the Irish are no exception, as witnessed by the proceedings.

    Performances by Philip Goodwin as Sir Roger, and John Windsor-Cunningham as lead prosecutor Sir Frederick, are riveting, especially since they also double as jurors, and with each ballot they unfold in vote after vote, we hope they come to their senses even though we know the die is irrevocably cast.

    One has to wonder, however, where Sir Roger's brains were when he went to Germany. It's World War I! His country's in a bloody war with the Germans, yet he addresses Irish prisoners in a German POW camp, speaks with the German government officials in Berlin, and then returns home in a German U-boat. What the devil was he thinking? Was he really that na�ve? Did he really believe that the British government mightn't be a bit suspicious?

    Though this perspective isn't even broached in the play by any of the characters, "Prisoner of the Crown" is, nevertheless, powerful and fascinating, another jewel for Irish Rep's crown.

    Barbara Mehlman & Geri Manus