Butterflies and Bones: The Casement Project, which had its world premiere at the weekend at The Place, Duke’s Road in London, near Euston, opened with a somewhat harrowing account of Roger Casement’s exhumation ahead of his state funeral in 1965. This is played through a tower of speakers on an empty stage, making it impossible to ignore.
It is one the moments which gave the piece some of it’s recurring images: one is the shroud which kept Casement’s skull intact in his quicklime grave (in which various members of the cast are wrapped to represent the dead body of Casement).
The piece, performed by a six strong cast including Fearghus O Connchuir the choreographer, is ‘very much non-narrative’ according to its producer, and an attempt to explore the legacy of Casement through the physical and ephemeral.
Early on, each member of the cast says in turn ‘I am Roger Casement’, the final dancer saying this in French (presumably as a nod to Casement’s time in the Belgian Congo). The aspects of Casement highlighted by the piece are Casement’s sexuality (seen through the lenses of contemporary and twentieth century underground gay culture) and his execution for treason.
The dancing is impressive and energetic, and the movement between these two themes leads to some sudden and moving changes of tone: the awareness of the vulnerability of the human body, and of any individual.
The decision to have quite a lot of nudity (at least two fully naked male dancers, including the choreographer, others topless) appears to arise out of a desire to explore sex and death as points at which the body is vulnerable…but it really does leave little, if anything, to the imagination.
It makes sense to combine the two elements of Casement’s sexuality and his execution as a form of the State asserting ownership of his body: moves for clemency towards him after his conviction for treason were quashed because of evidence of his sexuality, and this is a point which should be remembered (especially as the Irish Government, even in memorialising him with a state funeral, sought to create a sexless historical figure rather than acknowledge this).
The moments of the piece which explored his death packed emotional punch, and were moving and effective: some moments of the rest of it were, and others less so (the use of elements of dance from the Harlem ball scene looks beautiful, but seems a very different type of gay culture to that which Casement knew).
On balance, it was a memorable attempt to explore Casement’s legacy and provide something different from the rest of the 1916 commemorations, even if it wasn’t always fully effective and quite possibly not to the taste of many people raised with Casement as a hero.