Treason! But not really! That's the focus of Richard Stockton's mistakenly impassioned "Prisoner of the Crown," in which the villainous English persecute nobleman Richard Casement, a champion of the oppressed -- first the Congolese who suffered under Belgium's monstrous Leopold II, and then the Irish Republicans who rebelled against the Brits.

Treason! But not really! That’s the focus of Richard Stockton’s mistakenly impassioned “Prisoner of the Crown,” in which the villainous English persecute nobleman Richard Casement, a champion of the oppressed — first the Congolese who suffered under Belgium’s monstrous Leopold II, and then the Irish Republicans who rebelled against the Brits. Casement is an undeniably fascinating figure, but “Prisoner” lovingly (and selectively) details what must be the least interesting part of his life.

Casement (Philip Goodwin) apparently conspired with the Germans during WWI in ways Stockton’s play never deigns to explain, but the subject was subsequently captured and hanged for it. The evil Frederick Smith (John Windsor-Cunningham) masterminds his trial and execution, forging diaries that revealed Casement’s homosexual escapades with the natives during his time abroad, and rigging his trial.

The portrayal of Smith, a character who needs only a moustache to twirl and a Persian cat to stroke, is the first clue that Stockton’s history is perhaps slightly disingenuous. Upon further research, the play’s irritating vagaries about Casement’s activities in Germany become explicable, since the crimes do actually seem to merit a guilty verdict (whether they merit the death penalty is a separate argument).

A knight of the realm, Casement crept off to Germany (then at war with England) to ask for arms that would enable the Irish to rise up against the Brits. Since an open rebellion on England’s doorstep could hardly hurt the German cause, Casement was received with open arms but given fewer weapons than he had hoped for, and those were quickly seized by the English before they reached Irish hands.

Thus, Smith’s dilemma: how to execute a civilian — worse, a knight — who was not exactly a German spy and could not be considered an Irish spy unless Ireland was granted statehood.

It’s a shame Stockton couldn’t find ways to inject a little of that ambiguity into the proceedings. Instead, the play is left to jump between the courtroom, where justice is being stomped on, and the jury chambers, where jurors are repeating salacious gossip about Casement. Whenever Casement faces his accuser, Smith says things like, “As a matter of idle curiosity … do you despise me as much as I despise you?”

Ciaran O’Reilly’s direction gives the play no sense of purpose. And without any sort of dramatic arc to play, the actors look supremely uncomfortable. This might have something to do with the between-scenes transitions, done with a weird now-we’re-dancing flourish during which all the highly proper characters boogie to inappropriate music, recalling (accidentally, we hope) “The Benny Hill Show.”

“Prisoner of the Crown” hasn’t had a major U.S. production since 1974, and it’s easy to understand why the Irish Rep would want to devote part of its season to the exploration of a figure as compelling as Casement: he led an interesting and varied life with some intensely dramatic episodes. Now, if only someone would write a play about them.

Prisoner of the Crown

Irish Repertory Theater; 137 seats; $60 top

Production

An Irish Repertory Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Richard Stockton, with additional material by Richard T. Herd. Directed by Ciaran O'Reilly.

Creative

Set, Charlie Corcoran; costumes, David Toser; lighting, Brian Nason; sound, Zachary Williamson; production stage manager, Elis Arroyo. Opened May 22, 2008. Reviewed May 23. Running time: 2 HOURS, 10 MIN.

Cast

With: Peter Cormican, Patrick Fitzgerald, Philip Goodwin, Emma O'Donnell, Tim Ruddy, Ian Stuart, John Vennema, John Windsor-Cunningham.
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