The 100th anniversary of The Battle of the Somme is plenty reason to revisit Frank McGuinness’s 1985 play about a small troop of Ulstermen going to war with Germany – and themselves – in a conflict that cast a shadow over the remainder of the 20th Century.
But it’s also 100 years since another landmark in the construction of the modern British Isles and it’s hard to not to see the significance of Irish men of either religion prepared to go to their deaths for God and country.
It’s four years since McGuinness’s incendiary The Match Box premiered at the Liverpool Playhouse and Jeremy Herrin’s new production of Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme – part way through an extensive tour of Great Britain and Northern Ireland – makes for similarly uncomfortable viewing.
The aged Pyper, the only survivor from the horrifying battle, is haunted by the ghosts of his seven former comrades decades after the event. In a way his survival seems the worst fate of all. We see these eight men coming together in mutual suspicion in 1916, united by their patriotism – and initial distrust of the upper-class, homosexual Pyper, a bright Donal Gallery.
The rest are drawn from Ulster’s working classes and constitute a range of familiar archetypes: Roulston, a former minister who has lost his faith; Crawford, a naif with a secret; Anderson and McIlwaine, a rough pair of Belfast riveters and proud Orangemen. Each has his own private battle and, as they come together in pairs, they draw out the poison in one another until they are as close as brothers.
The production is bookended by two acts that see the men meet for the first time in barracks and subsequently in the trenches on the fateful morning of the battle. It’s here that this production excels, with the ensemble cast sparking off one another to amusing and compelling effect.
Act Two sees them all return home for leave and shouting. Pyper finds love with the forthright Craig and the other six pair off to explore bravery, faith and mortality. But it’s here that this production briefly goes off the rails too. Despite a starkly beautiful set that is cleverly lit, the light and shade disappears here under a furious bombardment of raised voices. McGuinness’s lyrical prose gets lost in noise as numbing as a lambeg drum beating out a tattoo.
By the time of the fateful Summer morning in 1916 individual relationships within the group have grown together and apart. But as a band they are indivisible, bound together by religion, God – and the knowledge that they are all about to die. Moments of silence, humour and camaraderie throw the terrible knowledge of what is to come into sharp relief and it makes for a powerful denouement.
Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme
Until 25th June then touring