Writer: Frank McGuinness
Director: Jeremy Herrin
Reviewer: R G Balgray
Almost as soon as the lights come up, we are introduced to the febrile, urgent imaginings and memories of the older Kenneth Pyper. For this is the revival production of Frank McGuinness’s 1985 play, Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme; and Pyper’s memories are of his fallen comrades, whose ghosts crowd around him. The remainder of the play explores the questions he asks himself: why did the “other” 1916 in Irish history, the slaughter of the 36th Ulster Division at the Somme, happen, and just what was it all for ?
Of course, times have changed since it was initially brought to performance. World War One is now the stuff of history syllabuses and anniversaries. The Troubles, touched on in the First Act, have receded, though not totally, and not without fear of return. The homosexuality of the central character, Pyper, the “rare boy”, is less shocking in our more enlightened times. More importantly, the iconography has changed too. The lambeg drum, the sashes, the references to Fenians and Taigs – all are seen today in a different, harsher light. So does this revival merely capture a moment in time, a chapter in a history book? Far from it.
Structurally, the action of the play is encompassed in three parts, covering the initial meeting together of the eight raw recruits, their home leave together, and the eve of the last battle. There are no deaths on stageand no “battlefield action” as such. But what this multi-layered production, with its pared down stage setting, manages supremely well is to show all the different reasons why its cast finds themselves there. All are volunteers. And all have been affected to some degree by the political manoeuvrings involved in the setting up of what constitutes the modern Northern Ireland. However, as their backgrounds are revealed, what comes across is the richness and variety of their lives, their language, their culture – from the shipyards of Belfast to the countryside of Coleraine. Some of it is brutal and cruel, but often the play is humorous too, and as a sense of their friendships develops, their humanity shines through. And something stronger. As they head towards the inevitable carnage, amid all the fear and doubt, even Pyper the arch-rebel (energetically played in his younger self by Donal Gallery) is swept up by the refusal to surrender their sense of themselves and the impregnable sense of their own identity. Which is what makes the play so powerful, so moving and so important. As Sean McGinley, the older Pyper, explains : “we were not led, we led ourselves”. An uncomfortable truth, but a truth nevertheless.
Runs until 4 June 2016 | Image: Johann Persson