The ‘butterflies’ above refers to the fact that on his travels around the British and Belgian colonial empires, and his sojourn in parts of Latin America investigating the brutalities of various rubber companies, Casement collected local lepidoptera (butterflies) for the Natural History Museum. This is a London-based institution, he may have felt it another part of his imperial duty to do such. The London University School of Slavonic and East European and the School of African and Oriental Studies were both a focussing of relatively disorganised studies in wartime, for wartime. The persons who ran The Empire were, as Pádraig Pearse put it, strong and wise and wary. There was nothing about their ill-gotten booty they weren’t interested in – and hanging onto, thus the centralising of knowledge about the east European and Slav world, as well as The Empire.
The ‘bones’ refers to a number of things, including Casement’s own bones. An introductory voiceover (repeated twice during the performance), quotes notes made by a bureaucrat in the course of Casement’s remains being disinterred to be repatriated to Ireland fifty years after his execution. The anonymous, disinterested, civil servant notes that, despite being told by (Pentonville) Prison personnel that the use of quicklime had been abandoned some year’s prior to Casement’s execution, there was a layer of the substance in the grave. It had been poured over the body, which was in a winding sheet, and had destroyed the flesh, and, half a century on, most of Casement’s bones.
Dance is not a medium designed to convey specific messages – there are times in this show when it is difficult to work out where in Casement’s career we are. There are no obvious references to his long sojourn as a minor imperial Consular bureaucrat. There are to his encounter with King (’of the Belgians’) Leopold – pictured as an un-regal, almost gangsterish figure. (He spent most of his life in a Paris hotel, living with his ‘mistress’, his devout Spanish wife lied with their children in the draughty Laeken Palace in Brussels.
This ‘show’ is well worth seeing, despite some obvious problems – most dancers have fine ‘toned’ bodies – most monarchs and bureaucrats don’t. There are moments when the cast appear in ensemble, at one or two points not overdressed, when most of the audience’s attention inevitably wanders away from the grisly climax of this story.
Which is, of course, Casement’s brutal execution.
This Project is one of the better – and unusual – products of the centenary commemorations of 1916.
This show was part of Belfast International Arts Festival 2016. In 1916, British peer Roger Casement was hanged in Pentonville Prison and was shown in The MAC, Belfast on 13 October 2016