Observe The Sons: Ambitious Without Fulfilment

In a year of commemorations, Síofra Ní Shluaghadháin reviews Frank McGuinness’ wartime play Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme.[br]STAGED as part of The Abbey Theatre’s Easter 1916 commemorations, Frank McGuinness’ Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme is a co-production with Headlong, Citizens Theatre, and Liverpool Everyman & Playhouse. The spirit of ensemble is evident in what is arguably McGuinness’ seminal play, written and first performed at the same venue in 1985. It can be seen as one of the most challenging and fascinating portrayals of the First World War in any medium.The cast is a powerhouse of characters, from Donal Gallery’s maddening-to-mellowing portrayal of the young Kenneth Pyper, to the divided loyalties of Jonny Holden’s Martin Crawford. This particular production was clearly one of two parts. The first was of a practical and artistic concern. There is a beating heart in this production, echoing the sound of the Lambeg drum that is a symbol of fascination and Northern Irish culture throughout the whole play. The light is similarly naturalistic, and the minimalistic, stripped-back set allows the play to take shape effectively through the skilful acting and the poetry of the text itself.It is indeed a play of fascinations, religion, repressed sexuality and, of course, place. Ulster itself is a recurrent theme throughout, serving as God and often a cruel mistress to the men who fight at the call for King and Country in France. The play, of course, reaches its climax at the infamous Battle of the Somme, another event which shook 1916 and which took place exactly one hundred years after the Battle of the Boyne. Both events had enormous impact on the history of Northern Ireland and its culture.On the other hand, though, it is a production of failed expectations that were set ambitiously high. Sitting in the dark of the theatre, it becomes hard not to be overcome with a sense of what might have been. The production is safe in its aims, playing to the tune of the typical programme of the 1916 centenary. The constant name-dropping of Pearse is drawn into particular focus at one point, a moment that sticks out in the mind as one of discomfort for the play and audience alike. At points it feels out of focus. Much of the power of commentary of Northern Irish society three decades ago is lost in the huge tide of the commemoration. It is all the weaker for this oversight, shirking important subtleties of religion, loyalty and complicated history in favour of a narrative that seems to have been streamlined to fit with a specific agenda.It is, at its heart a difficult play, creating characters that are at once human, likeable and totally at odds with what modern sensibilities consider sympathetic. Yet, instead of embracing this uncomfortable dichotomy, this production chooses instead to pander to its audience.It is not enough that the issue of Pyper’s sexuality is explored beyond the subtlety of its textual basis, although the shock of that moment cannot be lost on anyone. In short, it is a production that is ultimately failed by a disconnect between the vision of the original script and motive of staging it in the year that it is.It is a disappointment to fans of this iconic play, which earned McGuinness his reputation as a force to be reckoned with in the world of the theatre. Though an ambitious production, it fails to reach its mark at many points throughout. Instead, the play becomes merely another commemorative piece in a year already packed full of them.