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Interview with Arnold Thomas Fanning – Writer of McKenna’s Fort

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McKenna’s Fort by Arnold Thomas Fanning – The New Theatre

Mar 21st – Apr 2nd – Opens Wed 23rd @ 7.30pm – Tickets: €16 (€12.50 conc.)

We had the chance to interview Arnold Thomas Fanning, writer of McKenna’s Fort ahead of the opening in the New Theatre next week. You can see the results below.

How long have you been working on this play?

It’s been on my mind for over a decade, but I began to work on it in earnest about a year ago, reading as much as I could about Casement, writing early drafts, work-shopping the play and rewriting until I had the current draft ready for rehearsal. It has been a long but very rewarding process.

What was it that attracted you to his story?

I was very interested initially in his South American journeys as I have always been fascinated by that continent; and later I read his Diaries which equally intrigued me. I was interested in a statesman, humanitarian, and revolutionary who was also an outsider in society, who had a secret life which could not be made public, who lived in conflict with his times and society: and this attracted me greatly also.

How do you attempt to distil a life into a play?

With fear and trembling! Trying to put everything of Casement’s life into one play is impossible: I had to make difficult choices about what to put in and what to leave out, and to focus on certain themes. It was so daunting to begin the play, and initially I baulked at the task. Then I began to imagine him from the inside, as a man, what he witnessed and observed and experienced, and slowly was able to move away from him being a historical figure such as you’d find in a book, to a living breathing character you’d find on stage.

How did Casement become involved in the republican movement?

In the last decade of Casement’s life two things were going on in his thinking: a growing devotion to the Irish cultural revival, and an increasing anti-Imperialism. What he witnessed during the Boer War, in the Congo, and in South America, in particular the cruelty of Europeans towards indigenous peoples, disillusioned him about the benefits of colonialism, which as a young man he had embraced. At a certain point, these two strands of thinking intertwined, and he went from being a cultural revolutionary to a political revolutionary. In the play I draw from his letters and have Casement say: “I am the one who found myself, in those lonely Congo forests, in the Putumayo, who saw the truth about Imperialism- the incorrigible Irishman, the true patriot!” It was this two-fold personal journey that led to Casement being involved in the revolutionary movement.

Casement is a fascinating part of the Rising, with his background and sexual orientation. Was there almost too much source material for one play?

Absolutely. One biography I used for research is over five hundred pages long, and I ended up using four key texts along with the Diaries themselves, so there was an imperative to be selective about the source material which ran into thousands of pages of text. Initially, you want to go on reading because he is so interesting, and there is always more to learn; but at a certain point you have to just stop and trust you have enough insight to the character to start writing.

Where did the name McKenna’s Fort come from?

McKenna’s Fort is an ancient rath or ring-fort in Co. Kerry, near Banna Strand. Casement, and two companions, came ashore there on April 21st, 1916, and Casement ended up waiting through the night in McKenna’s Fort on his own while his companions went on to find transport for him. Help never came, and in the afternoon he was arrested there. For me it is a symbolic place, the end of Casement’s journey as a revolutionary. Recently I travelled there and it is a very moving place to stand in, to think of Casement waiting all night for rescue that never came, and ending his life as a free man in such a desolate spot.

The play uses the famous Black Diaries as source material. These are journals where Casement wrote about his liaisons with young men. The veracity of these texts was disputed for many years before they were eventually confirmed by hand writing experts. Why do you think they were disputed?

There are still some who dispute their veracity, and argue they were forged by the British to discredit Casement during his campaign for clemency after his trial and conviction. From my reading, I am convinced they are true, and show a complete picture of Casement’s life and character. But at the time they were revealed, just after his trial, they proved shocking to a society that had no toleration or acceptance of gay men. His supporters simply did not want to believe he was gay. To do so meant basically siding with the British version of his life, and that is the divide still between those who accept the Diaries’ veracity and those who don’t: it is a politically loaded position to take.

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You travelled to Peru, to follow in Casement’s footsteps. Where did you travel and what did you find there?

I was fortunate to receive a Travel & Training Award from the Irish Arts Council which allowed me to be a resident writer in Sachaqa Centro de Arte, an artist’s retreat near Tarapoto in Northern Peru. Then I was able to travel to key places in Casement’s time in Peru including Iquitos and the interior of the Amazon jungle. I found myself seeing the region through his eyes, experiencing the smells, the heat, the light, the plants and animals as he would have experienced them, though of course he experienced them in a much more extreme way, often travelling for days by foot in the interior for his work. But I got a flavour of his life there, and it gave me an opening into seeing life through his eyes and creating him as a character for stage.

It must be a great feeling to see a play you wrote on stage. Will opening night feel like the end of a long journey?

It will feel like the end of an amazing journey; for over a year I have immersed myself in researching and writing the play, in Casement’s life and in creating Casement as a character, and in working closely with director Paul Kennedy and actor Michael Bates in workshopping and rehearsing the play. I am very excited to see it on stage, and our great team of designers too have brought so much to it, and I am full of anticipation to see how my words will look and sound in performance. The opening night will definitely feel like the end of something; but I feel I will be connected to, and thinking of, Roger Casement for a long time to come, so this production is the beginning of something new also.

Michael Bates as Roger Casement photo credit: Ste Murray

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Categories: Header, interview, Theatre

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