Review: Observe the Sons of Ulster marching Towards the Somme at Belfast's Lyric Theatre

The new production of Observe The Sons Of Ulster Marching Towards The Somme is directed by Jeremy Herrin
Jane Hardy

OBSERVE the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, Frank McGuinness' 1985 play, is a powerful slice of drama.

And what we observe in Donegal-born Mr McGuinness' play is a band of unionist brothers and the complexity of their identity.

The statistics of the Ulster soldiers' involvement, and the losses of the 36th Ulster division, remain unbelievably shocking.

Thousands died but it's the individual stories here that sear your consciousness.

On one level this is a Journey's End style story of young men thrown together in the horror of the First World War.

On another, it's about being unable to escape the demands of a suffocating Protestant identity 

It's easy to sanctify the brave young men who went over the top, but McGuinness' portrait does anything but.

Starting with Old Kenneth Pyper (Sean McGinley), we hear the voice of a man haunted by the ghosts of his dead comrades.

His speech about his God, or dark Protestant gods, is almost Shakespearean. Pyper is a King Lear railing against deities who are scarcely Christian. As he shouts 'Were you not there in all your dark glory?'

What's clever about what follows as we meet the young men from Derry, Armagh, Coleraine, Enniskillen and Belfast is we see their flaws.

The stage is peopled with Vladimirs and Estragons. The chief friendship, a love story, is between sexually ambivalent young Ken Pyper (brilliant Donal Gallery as the 'rare boy') and David Craig (Ryan Donaldson).

They fight themselves, one plays games with the other, but they remain the Ulstermen who constantly reference the Somme as a second Battle of the Boyne.

Elsewhere, we get shell shock, a man of God who can't easily maintain his faith, and the whole gamut of human nature.

These First World War voices aren't the pure poetic speakers of the anonymous poets, but real, swearing men who feel bound to a tough, demanding higher calling.

Yet on leave, their faith in the fight is tested to the limit and one of the most powerful scenes involve the two men, Anderson (Andy Kellegher) and McIlwaine (Paul Kennedy), shipyard workers returning to the Field with some whisky and a need to beat the lambeg.

Is it all a piece of powerful make-believe or something they can march to? In a fine piece of acting, we see them return to their core beliefs.

McIlwaine passionately invokes 'the holiest spot in Ulster'. Finally, the men we see as individuals unite, pick up their Ulster identity with their kit, and take the fight to the Hun, yes, the Fenians, and in a way themselves. Jeremy Herrin directs brilliantly.

We know the grim ending, with only posh, fey Pyper the last man alive, and as the superb set shows its red sky, you sense little ease in the future.

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