OBSERVE THE SONS OF ULSTER MARCHING TOWARDS THE SOMME
CITIZENS THEATRE, GLASGOW
Review by Mark Brown
This, the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, is a timely moment for Headlong theatre company and its co-producers in Glasgow, Liverpool and Dublin to present this exceptional revival of Frank McGuinness’s iconic 1985 play Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme. Just as the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916 was a historic juncture in the shaping of Irish Republican politics and identity, so the Battle of the Somme was a formative event in the evolution of its rival tradition, Ulster Loyalism.
The drama is set in 1916, in the trenches of France and the six counties that would become Northern Ireland. It offers a compelling and humane consideration of the Protestant men of the 36th (Ulster) Division of the British Army, more than 2,000 of whom died on the banks of the Somme.
The eight men of the play, ranging from Belfast shipyard workers McIlwaine and Anderson, to former minister of religion Roulston, are a diverse group. Most incongruous, among the otherwise working-class company, is Pyper, a young sculptor who is the “black sheep” of his wealthy family, on account of his homosexuality.
There is a touch of genius in McGuinness’s perfectly structured, sensitive, often bleakly comic exploration of the contradictions of the men’s situation. This is particularly true of the third of the play’s four parts, in which we see the characters back home in Ulster on leave, separated into four carefully matched pairs.
McIlwaine and Anderson, for example, are beginning to fear that they care more for the British Empire than the British Empire cares for them. In a scene that is typical of the piece’s superb symbolism, they take refuge in a defiant, two-man Orange walk, complete with a huge lambeg drum.
Director Jeremy Herrin and his universally brilliant cast give powerful and nuanced expression to McGuinness’s exquisitely crafted script. Designer Ciaran Bagnall’s hyper-real set (an impressionistic trench placed before an often red horizon) adds to the beautiful, premonitory poetics of the writing.
This is a resonating play of war and identity, in which not only the certainties of politics and religion, but also those of masculinity and sexuality, are put under intolerable strain. This deeply affecting touring production delivers it with tremendous intelligence and emotional charge.
At Citizens Theatre until June 4. Touring UK and Ireland until October 8. For tour dates, visit: headlong.co.uk
An abridged version of this review was originally published on the website of the Daily Telegraph on May 31, 2016
© Mark Brown