Review: Fearghus Ó Conchúir - The Casement Project: Butterflies and Bones - The Place

Performance: 11 & 12 June 2016
Reviewed by Josephine Leask - Monday 13 June 2016

'Butterflies and Bones'. Photo: Stephen Wright

Fearghus Ó Conchúir’s commission for Ireland 2016 Centenary programme ART:2016 and 14 – 18 NOW, the UK’s arts programme for the centenary of WW1 is an imaginative reflection on the life of Irish protestant nationalist, humanitarian and peer Roger Casement. Butterflies and Bones: The Casement Project draws on biographical material, reviews, diaries, writings by and about Casement and using live text, voice-overs and dance, attempts to evoke the multiple identities of this extraordinary Irishman who was hanged in Pentonville prison for treason against the British government in 1916. The fact that he was an active homosexual, discovered from his diaries which he wrote while he was working in Africa and South America before WW1, didn’t help endear him to either the British or the Irish governments. From being knighted by the British for his humanitarian work in Congo and Rio de Janeiro, Casement soon became an avid campaigner for Irish nationalism and while he fell out of favour with the British, he was hailed by the Irish – until they found out about his homosexuality.

Casement’s story is an ambitious subject for a dance-theatre company. The very lengthy programme notes while intriguing about Casement’s life are daunting to read before the show and much of the content is not represented in any comprehensible way on stage. However Ó Conchúir didn’t want to make a dance biography but something more creative that would pick up on Casement’s spirited character. Therefore he focuses on Casement’s sexual and racial identity – his queer activities and his positioning as both insider and outsider in his own country.

The seven dancers collectively symbolise Casement’s body; each of them announces at the beginning “I am Roger Casement” but their embodiment of the man is light. There is nothing that is too literal in their abstract response to his selfhood. Ó Conchúir takes a few key historical moments form Casement’s life and death: the first is a description of his body parts being exhumated from Pentonville prison to be returned to Ireland, while the dancers wrap the body of Bernadette Iglich in a metallic shroud and position her on top of a mound of speakers, like the Angel of Death.

Another is an extract from Colm Toibin’s review of Roger Casement’s Diaries 1910, recounting his lively sexual activities. The dancers flirt and tease in duets, slapping and tickling each other while the naked and tattooed body of Matthew Morris writhes on the floor. They carry Morris downstage, pointing suggestively to his bottom as medical details about Casement’s over-used anus are heard on the voice-over. The queerness of Casement is the aspect of his identity which is presented most forcibly in the work and it’s particularly welcome in the light of the recent hate attack on a gay club in Florida.

Theo Clinkard strikes various camp poses on a night-club podium, sporting a t-shirt with the slogan “Deep to the Hilt” while Philip Connaughton’s displays “Very Deep Thrusts”. Casement’s love of costumes and pretty things, such as his butterfly collection, are suggested by the glamorous metallic shroud which is passed around, red velvet stilettos worn by both Morris and Iglich and the glittery back-drop behind the curtain. It’s a playful scene and alludes to contemporary gay culture but it’s hard to connect this to Casement’s interaction with the Amazonian Indians.

The company members, from being suspicious of each other at the beginning and performing isolated fragments of idiosyncratic movement, eventually find solidarity in displays of fluid, rangy unison. Another voice-over reads out the names of Irish nationalists who were shot, and Casement’s rebellious political agenda is suggested. The performers seem to unite through their constant manipulation and repositioning of the props: cables, speakers and a trolley, exchanging smiles and words of encouragement. The pedestrian object-related movement is as important as the technical choreography and contact duets. Exuberant energy bursts from the dancers, who are an interesting group of individuals but the women, Iglich and Liv O’Donoghue are underused. There’s little for women to empathise with in the way the topic is communicated.

There’s plenty to admire about the performance but it’s a confusing work to watch and overall the various themes don’t gel. While Ó Conchúir captures a certain spirit of an important Irish national figure, the historical bearing of the man hugely outweighs the performance about him.

The Casement Project continues with further events in Ireland and Fáilte, a short film, made with Director Dearbhla Walsh, shot on location on Banna Strand in July wil be broadcast on RTE in Autumn 2016

Josephine Leask is a lecturer in Cultural Studies on the BA (Hons) degree course at the London Studio Centre and London correspondent for The Dance Insider.

Photos: Stephen Wright

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