May-June 2016, directed by Jeremy Herrin, Citizens Theatre
A truly excellent war drama has the potential to leave the audience reeling; exploring the rawness of grief and humanity in the powerful context of such a disruptive force, it can affect the viewers in a visceral way that no other form of drama can quite capture. As poignant and revealing as the Citizen Theatre’s production of Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme may be, it lacks this potent transformative impact and suffers all the more for it.
Originally performed in Dublin in 1986 and penned by prestigious playwright Frank McGuinness, the play centres on the experience of eight Northern Irish unionists in the First World War. Patriotism, religion and the Northern Irish consciousness are all intriguingly explored as the men first meet, deal with the conflicting emotions that war conjures and then face the infamously bloody battle of the Somme. Perhaps due to my naïve conception of war dramas or a misunderstanding of what the play was ‘about’, Observe the Sons seemed to lack a certain cohesiveness and continuity of themes, a fault fully rooted in McGuinness’ script. Despite the efforts of the convincing and talented actors – of which Donal Gallery emerges foremost – the dialogue is cursed with clunky phrasing and meaningless patriotic grandeur, which engulfs the protagonists in often overblown and needlessly sentimental discussions.
Frankly, the protagonists felt less like living, struggling human beings than cut-and-paste ideological ideas; historical relics rather than real people. A dose of distinctive modernity and contemporariness would have elevated Jeremy Herrin’s production into a patently human interpretation of the tragedy, which would have undoubtedly enhanced the considerable potential of Observe the Sons. Fascinating glimpses appear of what the play could have been – from the charged homosexual relationship between Pyper and Craig, and the violent hostility displayed towards Catholicism – but Herrin ultimately does not quite accomplish the unification of these disparate, unwieldy elements. Yet the last act, in which the eight soldiers prepare themselves for the Somme, succeeds in a way that the previous acts just miss – deftly capturing the human spirit in the midst of war, with all its contradictory complexity.