Production focusing on Battle of the Somme raises many issues

After watching the excellent production of the Frank McGuinness play ‘Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme’ at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre recently one is left with vexing questions as to its central theme.

Is the play about the futility of war? The nature of loyalty, friendship and heroism? Or is it an examination of the protracted Protestant-Catholic northern Irish conflict from a completely different perspective?

Whatever it is, this production is a two-hour, richly rewarding theatrical experience that offers a balanced mix of black humor and poignancy with credible characters well developed through very fine acting.

Hosting of the production in July is timely as it marks the centennial of the First World War battle in northern France during which more than one million Commonwealth, French and German soldiers were wounded, captured, or killed. Among the dead were many members of the 36th Ulster Division.

The play begins with an opening soliloquy from a grey-haired artist portrayed by Sean McGinley standing beside an unfinished sculpture of Cú Chulainn, the Irish mythological hero. Mystified as to how he survived the terrible battle, he is haunted by the images of comrades who died in the trenches, who then slowly, ghostlike, emerge from the shadows at the edges of the stage gazing at him questioningly.

Photo used with permission from Lyric Theatre Belfast

Photo used with permission from Lyric Theatre Belfast

Through an effective scene change, the audience is transported to a military barracks where the men, conscripted northern Irish soldiers from places such as Derry, Armagh, Coleraine, Enniskillen and Belfast, gather for their first day of training. While all the actors succeed in portraying very well-defined characters – mostly working-class men from farm and shipyard – excellently, one stands out above the rest – Donal Gallery. This talented performer plays the role of Kenneth Pyper with electrifying skill. His character is a multi-faceted one – cynical, seemingly on the brink of madness, brash, supercilious, bold to the point of foolhardy, wickedly direct, yet at the same time, a vulnerable and lost individual. Interestingly, the older Pyper depicted in the opening scene barely resembles the younger man in spirit, showing either a major weakness in characterization or a strength if it is meant somehow to reflect the dramatic changes war has wrought upon him.

Photo used with permission from Lyric Theatre Belfast

Photo used with permission from Lyric Theatre Belfast

What all the soldiers have in common is their strong Protestant identity, which emerges in their comparing the upcoming battle to one that took place hundreds of years previously, the Battle of the Boyne that ensured continued Protestant ascendancy in Ireland. To an extent, Pyper is the exception, being unwilling to indulge in such narrow-minded northern Irish tribalism but more keenly aware of the ‘sandbag’ nature of their being sent ‘over the top’ and into battle. He even demands of his fellow soldiers to answer the question as to why they are there. Further emphasizing the dichotomy within northern Ireland society is – aside from the half-revealed statue of Cú Chulainn – a Lambeg drum, symbol of Protestant tradition and triumphalism. A figurative stone carving of a naked woman displaying an exaggerated vulva, known as a ‘sheela na gig,’ is a nod towards either Celtic paganism or Christianity, both of which ironically link Protestant and Catholic together historically.

Dialogue is snappy and fast-paced throughout with frequent bouts of comical, often boyish, exchanges highlighted by Pyper’s anecdote about a three-legged French wife. At times, the evolving camaraderie among the men reminded me of ‘Dead Poets Society’ but in military uniform and their ultimate fate of lines from ‘Newborn Awakening,’ a song by the Jim Morrison of the Doors, ‘Indian, Indian, what did you die for? Indian says, nothing at all.’

Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme

Photo used with permission from Lyric Theatre Belfast

Kudos go to the set and lighting designers who created an almost three dimensional perspective out of bare floor and wood scaffolding and also deliver a dramatic, almost cinematic experience, with the effect of mortars exploding over a night sky. Strategically placed corrugated fencing depicts a pervading sense of a dismal, war-torn setting.

In the end, perhaps one is left with the belief that ultimately the soldiers are united in one thing – fear of death – and that real heroes are ordinary people and unfortunately ordinary people remain ordinary because they don’t get recognized. The fact that my companion left the theater in tears, soaked Kleenex in hand, is testimony to the emotional power of the play.

‘Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme’ is a joint project of Headlong Theatre Company, Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, Citizens Theatre and Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse and is directed by Jeremy Herrin. It will be performed at the Market Place Theatre in Armagh tomorrow (July 23), the Riverside Theatre in Coleraine (July 26) and An Grianan Theatre in Letterkenny (July 29-30).

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