Observe the Sons of Ulster review: history, psyche and sexuality writ large

An excellent cast serve Frank McGuinness’s play well, but the direction is never allowed an open attack on at its battlelines

Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme

One hundred years on, the Battle of the Somme remains an open wound. Second only to the Battle of the Boyne within the legend of Northern Irish Protestantism, whose loyalty to the crown provided much cannon fodder, its sacrifice and trauma still echoes. As a military manoeuvre, though, it came at astonishing cost for arguable benefit.

The last production of the Abbey’s centenary programme arrives home with fitting expense: a multi-headed Cerberus of a co-production between the Abbey, London’s Headlong, Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre and Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse Theatres, which has already covered more ground between Ireland, the UK and even a brief detour to the Somme battleground, than the characters in Frank McGuinness’s 1985 play. As it concludes in Dublin, it’s again hard to say if such a strategy has paid off.

Audacity and ambition


A work of audacity and ambition, written early in his career, McGuinness’s drama folds history, psyche and sexuality within a complex structure. Ciaran Bagnall’s economic set, a wooden platform whose floorboards fan out against a brooding sky like blast lines, is both appropriate and accommodating, although it suggests a generic vocabulary of war.

That’s also how the lengthy opening monologue, delivered by Sean McGinley’s distrait Kenneth Pyper, is imagined: the haunted survivor, insisting on senselessness, while making introductions, swatting at ghosts and laying down metaphors.

“The house has grown cold. Ulster has grown lonely. We discourage guests.” Not even an actor of McGinley’s great calibre makes it seem necessary.

A cumbersome beginning, it bestows the play’s perspective to his counterpart; the young Pyper, a subversive maverick, played with fey polish by Donal Gallery. Pyper, who will eroticise blood, flesh, fruit, colour, fighting, war and even death in the space of a few minutes, is an important emissary of sexuality and ambiguous identity in the national narrative. But, moreover, he also reminds you of the heavy symbolic burden upon anyone signalling gay desire a century before Grindr.

Gather in detail

This may be why, for all his impish spirit, it is the others chaps who seem less fettered, and as an excellent cast gather, their characters gather in detail. There is the assured Ryan Donaldson as Craig, a discreetly gay Adonis; the endearing Iarla McGowan and Chris McCurry as Millen and Moore, who enter the play as they leave it, like a bickering old couple; Macus Lamb’s faith-stricken Roulston and Jonny Holden’s self-lacerating Crawford; and last, but certainly most, Andy Kellegher and Paul Kennedy as the roaring Belfast brutes Anderson and McIlwaine, as fierce and thick as their moustaches.

The sly genius of the play is that we never encounter anyone of superior rank: Pyper will affect it, everybody bows to it, but its absence represents Ulster’s worst nightmare: they are truly alone.

“We are the sacrifice,” realises a horrified McIlwaine, during later intercutting dialogues, emboldened only by the pounding of a Lambeg drum. You may yearn, as I do, to see a director as imaginative as Jeremy Herrin given much freer rein with McGuinness’s work, or to have war represented with something more than the cliché of charging tableaux.

But there is something stilling, nonetheless, in the realisation the play offers them, and us, time and again. Dying for an ideal comes with the sober understanding that their sacrifice, like their flesh, will become indistinguishable. War is never symbolic; it is carnage.

Peter Crawley

Peter Crawley

Peter Crawley, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about theatre, television and other aspects of culture