FIRST NIGHT REVIEW: Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme

PUBLISHED: 12:13 26 June 2009 | UPDATED: 16:17 07 September 2010

Frank McGuinness has said when he wrote this in the early 80s, he was more concerned with dramatising the Orange mindset and relationships between men facing death than wi

Observe The Sons Of Ulster Marching Towards The Somme

Hampstead Theatre

Four stars

Frank McGuinness has said when he wrote this in the early 80s, he was more concerned with dramatising the Orange mindset and relationships between men facing death than with the pity of WWI's senseless slaughter.

If the Hampstead production offers the frisson of an historic conflict informing a current one post-peace process, McGuinness' examination of the tribal, religious, and emotional loyalties between eight Ulster Protestant soldiers now brings something fresh and surprising to a war we thought we'd reached a consensus on.

The play's poetic power is undimmed under John Dove's assured directorial hand, and the shifting dynamics between the men and their country remains gripping theatre.

In one scene, on home leave, the men struggle with doubts in overlapping dialogues. Self-loathing, upper-class Pyper (a charismatic James Hayes) shares sexual tenderness with blacksmith Craig; Crawford, the atheist product of a mixed marriage, helps preacher Roulston with his religious confusion; McIlwaine and Anderson falter in their anti-Fenian rhetoric as they wonder if loyalty to the King has sold them down the river; and childhood pals Millen and Moore help each other overcome their shot nerves on a bridge.

In another scene that brings home a senseless waste of life, they re-enact the Battle of the Boyne the night before going over the top. It is framed by James Hayes' embittered elderly Pyper looking back at his dead comrades. Despite surviving, he died with them, he says.

As a Catholic writing at a time of scant hope of breaking Northern Ireland's deadlock, McGuinness has a gloomy view of Ulster's divisions.

But this drama about individuals within a tribe and their ideological struggles stands time's test.

Until July 18.

Bridget Galton

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