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Observe The Sons Of Ulster Marching Towards The Somme

Published 24 June 2009

As troops fight on in Afghanistan, Hampstead theatre’s revival of Frank McGuinness’s 1986 play illuminates the futility of war with a portrayal of eight men being led to almost certain death in 1916.

It is a play about war, but McGuinness’s drama is also a carefully constructed character study of eight men from Ulster who volunteer to fight for King and country in the Great War. The dramatic arc allows us to learn of the characters’ reasons for volunteering just as they learn about each other, and eventually learn new things about themselves.

The story hangs on Kenneth Pyper (Richard Dormer), a man lost in a wilderness of his own creation. Described aptly as a ‘rare boyo’, Pyper is a manic, antagonistic, emotionally damaged fantasist with a death wish; he does not know why he is there, other than to wind up the other men with whom he serves. As he meets them in the barracks, he sees that each has his own reasons, on paper, for volunteering; a mixture of patriotism, pride and religious affiliation that hangs as much on the divisions in Northern Ireland as on divisions in Europe.

But as the unit is brought closer to the front and no man’s land looms, those reasons are altered or refined, and ultimately their sense of kinship as Ulstermen prevails over anything else. Even Pyper, through camaraderie, soul-searching and love, begins to find a sense of purpose to his life – just as he faces death – drawn from the other men’s pride in their homeland.  
This is a memory play and the action in 1916 is recalled by an older Pyper (James Hayes), who, we learn in the first scene, is the only man to survive the front. This device brings a poignant and ominous tone to the scenes as the play then reflects on these young men preparing for the worst.

Michael Taylor’s set incorporates army barracks, the green fields of Ulster and the trenches of the Somme, providing a simple but effective backdrop as we see these very different sons of Ulster come together through war. The universally competent cast includes John Hollingworth and Mark Holgate as a pair of violently Protestant Belfast lads, Owen Sharpe as a man who cannot face killing a horse, yet alone a man, and Eugene O’Hare as Craig, who finds love in war and recognises the futility of both.

An intimate portrait of friendship, love and pride, John Dove’s production is a pertinent reminder that war destroys them all.

CB

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