Observe The Sons Of Ulster Marching Towards The Somme
JOYCE MCMILLAN on OBSERVE THE SONS OF ULSTER MARCHING TOWARDS THE SOMME at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, for The Scotsman, 4.6.12
4 stars ****
ITS LIKE some great, craggy mountain of poetry and truth, is Frank McGuinness’s huge 1985 play about the Protestant men of Ulster who volunteered to serve king and country in the First World War, and were wiped out in huge numbers at the battle of the Somme. McGuinness is not himself a Protestant, which makes his play all the more significant as a waymark in Ireland’s long coming-to-terms with its divided past; but in teling the story of eight young Ulstermen in the Enniskillen Dragoons, only one of whom survives the conflict, McGuinnness unleashes a great tide of insight into tribalism and masculinity, religious hysteria and war, and the powerful mutual tenderness – sometimes sexual, often not – of male warriors facing death together.
Eve Jamieson’s Royal Conservatoire of Scotland production, seen briefly at the Tron over the weekend, offers some breathtaking production values, with a powerful sustained pace and energy, and superb lighting by Alexander Morgan. The performances vary a little in their sense of focus, with some of the student actors visibly more gripped than others by the significance of the material. Yet there’s still an impressive sense of a young company tackling one of the toughest challenges in modern British and Irish theatre, and delivering this great play to the audience whole and intact; even if they sometimes slither a lttle on the unexpected screes of McGuinness’s writing, and struggle to scale its mighty, intractable rock-faces of thought, eloquence and rage.