Frank McGuinness’s fine play about the First World War – first performed in 1985 – is worth reviving at any time, but this production is especially appropriate with 2016 marking the 100th anniversary of the battle that’s highlighted in the play’s full title: Observe The Sons Of Ulster Marching Towards The Somme. The engagement that’s now infamous for the disastrous nature of the tactics deployed by military leaders lasted 141 days, during which more than a million soldiers were killed or wounded. In terms of casualties July 1st, the opening day of the battle, remains the worst day in the history of the British army.
It’s also 100 years since the Easter Rising against British rule in Ireland, and July 1st happens to be the same date as the Battle of the Boyne in 1690, when William of Orange (who’d sailed with his army from Hoylake) defeated James II, securing the Protestant ascendancy in Ireland. Observe The Sons Of Ulster has a strong sense of Ireland’s tumultuous history, and the events of the play take place against a complex background of religious, civil and international conflict.
McGuinness is from a Catholic, republican background but his play, instead of following a more obvious route, offers a sympathetic portrayal of a group of Protestants, eight Ulster volunteers who’ve enlisted to fight in France. We begin with Pyper, now a tortured older man looking back at a harrowing period in his life, recalling his former comrades and his own younger self. We’re taken back to a training barracks, with Pyper (now played by a younger actor) and his fellow recruits coming together for the first time. In later scenes we see them on home leave after several gruelling months in France and then at the Somme, on the eve of what for many of them will be their last battle.
An intense, supportive bond slowly develops between the men, but what first strikes us are the contrasts between them. Pyper has had a privileged upbringing but is a social outsider, in part because of his homosexuality. His class suggests he should be an officer, but he’s enlisted as a private. He becomes romantically attached to Craig, a blacksmith. Roulston is a former clergyman who’s experiencing a crisis of faith. There’s also a pair of tough Catholic-hating Ulster loyalists who work in the Belfast shipyards, two more peaceable pals from Coleraine and Crawford, whose mother is a Catholic.
The diverse motives these characters have for joining up are gradually revealed, as are their individual flaws and insecurities. But what unites them is their humanity, which McGuinness suggests ultimately transcends any allegiance to king, country or religion. As the battle nears, it becomes clear that their deepest loyalty is to themselves, and to each other.
Inevitably a sense of tragedy hangs over the play, reinforced by the huge blood red sky that occasionally appears at the back of the stage and by the ominous drumbeat that punctuates the action. The closing moments are immensely sad and immensely powerful. But there’s plenty of humour too, as the characters learn about one another with mocking curiosity and find a shared relief from fear in laughter. The uniformly excellent cast exhibit tremendous sensitivity and skill in bringing this disparate group of soldiers to vivid, colourful life. Seán McGinley is outstanding as the haunted older Pyper, as is Donal Gallery as his sparky but troubled younger self.
This new production does full justice to a moving and compelling play.
***** Superb revival of an unforgettable play
Photos: Johann Persson
Observe The Sons Of Ulster Marching Towards The Somme continues at the Liverpool Playhouse until 25 June. For more information, click HERE.