Observe the sons of Ulster marching towards the Somme

Published in Issue 6 (November/December 2016), Reviews, Volume 24

Abbey Theatre, Dublin, 6 August–24 September 2016

By Eamon O’Flaherty

The most common question posed when deciding whether a work of art can be called a classic is whether it can survive the tendency of most things to decline with age and the passage of time. Even history, which through rhetoric can claim to be one of the liberal arts, is not immune from the ravages of time, as anyone reading, say, Irish historians of the 1970s and 1980s will very quickly realise. Dramatic and lyric poetry, on the other hand, often does have the potential to be, in the poet’s words, aere perennius. So if we are trying to assess the value of a work of art we think about its ability to age without becoming merely a curious artefact relating to a receding moment in time. A second feature necessarily, though less obviously, accompanies this first, which is that the classic work of art is capable not only of conveying a permanent meaning across time but also of being adapted to meet the concerns of our own times and places; because it is universal it is both timeless and always timely.

 Above: Even a leaden production could not hide the blood-curdling thrill of the Lambeg drum or the moving solidarity of the doomed men singing their final hymns together.


Above: Even a leaden production could not hide the blood-curdling thrill of the Lambeg drum or the moving solidarity of the doomed men singing their final hymns together.

The theatre is especially good in this respect because each performance is also the product of the interaction of the author’s text and creative direction. Sometimes, as the recently published final volume of Samuel Beckett’s letters revealed, this can survive even authorial disapproval or disengagement. Tackling a revival of Observe the sons of Ulster marching towards the Somme is actually a courageous decision, partly because the play was more or less instantly hailed as a classic when it first appeared and before anyone could really be sure that it was, and partly because so much has happened to the sons of Ulster since the play was first performed in 1985 that we inevitably ask whether it has worn well. Does it give us a better or different perspective on the turbulent history of Ireland and Northern Ireland through the lens of art? Does the current production add anything to the play or, more properly, permit a dramatic expression which says something to the sensibility of the present? None of the answers to these questions are straightforward. The impact of the play is highly qualified by the fact that the production is taking place in the centenary of the Easter Rising and the Battle of the Somme, the two conventional book-ends of the latest stage in a process of apparently endless commemoration in which we are locked as in a recurring nightmare from which we cannot awaken and return to real life. As William Philpott, professor of the history of warfare at King’s College London, wrote recently, the Battle of the Somme ‘has been mythologised to the point of caricature’, and it is the myth rather than the historical event that is the subject of most of the books that have been churned out to exploit the centenary. The same might be said with equal justification of the use of the Somme in recent Irish history. It is deeply ironic that the play which (at one level) set out to deal sympathetically with the forging of a tribal myth in the inferno of the Western Front, and ultimately with the tragedy of that myth’s creation, should be revived even as a similar process of manipulation seems to have become embedded in Anglo-Irish relations, at least as they existed until 23 June 2016. We can thus see the play either as yet another aspect of the engineering of public historical memory or as a provocative intervention which forces the audience to confront the horrifying implications of a cult of identity centred on death and destructive of love and life, even as these emerge from the comradeship of arms and a common cause.

Above: Does the current production add anything to the play or, more properly, permit a dramatic expression which says something to the sensibility of the present?

Above: Does the current production add anything to the play or, more properly, permit a dramatic expression which says something to the sensibility of the present?

The trouble with Jeremy Herrin’s production is that it seems uncertain which it is. As with most Abbey productions of recent years, the sets, lighting and costumes are superb, but the direction here was rather leaden and the actors sometimes appeared lost in the mazes of the play. This is especially apparent in the third section of the play, which is dramatically challenging, with four simultaneous locations across the province interacting as the characters pair off on their final leave before the battle. Frank McGuinness’s characters are individuals but, as in his other plays, individual characters assume choric identities in dramatic interaction, which is perhaps a key element in the power and sophistication of his dramaturgy. In this instance, what could be a spectacular and almost operatic fusion and interweaving of many currents can sometimes be merely confusing and suggest a working through of permutations worthy of a Beckett novel. Individual performances of some quality were somewhat adrift under these circumstances, and a really memorable initial soliloquy by Seán McGinley as the older Pyper, the sole survivor, was not matched by anything that came after. Young Pyper’s role in the play is central, but if it was necessary to dramatise his upper-class background by comparison with the regional accents of the others—Derry, Coleraine, Fermanagh, Belfast—why was he made to speak in the classless estuarine dialect of southern England in the 21st century?

Above: A really memorable initial soliloquy by Seán McGinley as the older Pyper, the sole survivor, was not matched by anything that came after.

Above: A really memorable initial soliloquy by Seán McGinley as the older Pyper, the sole survivor, was not matched by anything that came after.

More serious was the tone and delivery of the play. The greatest danger for McGuinness when he wrote it was that, instead of creating an intimate and sympathetic engagement with the subject, he would be accused of producing some kind of parodic mockery of the constitutive elements of the Ulstermen’s beliefs and emotions. The bombastic delivery of some of this material might have been more delicately handled. The language of the play is full of contrasts and contradictions which needed to be given more space, and the dramatic potential of the Ulster locations might have been better handled, but even a leaden production could not hide the blood-curdling thrill of the Lambeg drum or the moving solidarity of the doomed men singing their final hymns together. McGuinness’s drama operates powerfully on all these levels. It places demands on both audience and company, but if handled properly it may help us in our current dilemma.

Eamon O’Flaherty lectures in the School of History, University College Dublin.

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