Arts Review: Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme

Dir. Jeremy Herrin, Citizens Theatre, 20 May – 4 June

Both in the modern world and in the artistic world, it has become less common to find celebrations of war. The defeat of Hitler in WWII might be considered Britain’s finest hour, but more recent bloody excursions have raised eyebrows and questions about criminality rather than engendering a gung-ho attitude that promised to make heroes out of those who give the ultimate sacrifice.

Frank McGuinness’s Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme undoubtedly left more of an impression during its initial release in the mid-80s. A gay kiss on stage will never shock an audience in 2016 like it will have decades ago, diluting Pyper’s conflicts over his sexuality. During a brief period of calm while on leave, we see each soldier struggling as they have brought World War I home with them – one has PTSD, while another has a crisis of faith, and they collectively all question the point of such a murderous mission.

The source material is rich and full of confrontational conversations. Jeremy Herrin’s production, however, feels skin-deep. The audience has changed, the story has been told, and the lack of subtlety leaves little to ponder over once the sons of Ulster have gone over the top. Pyper’s privilege makes him difficult to relate to, despite being the closest thing to a protagonist – his social standing is clearly above the rest of his party, and he wishes to fit in, but his poetic musings, where before acting as a poetic metaphor, make him seem almost inhuman. This Pyper is the stuff of overblown Hollywood, juxtaposed with shipyard builders who fight for their country.

War is bad, and it deeply affects all of those involved; this is the modern war story. Herrin’s production does not offer much more than this – each character has their motives, they are all affected by the war in their own way. There are moments of humour, instances of emotional camaraderie, enough character exploration to set everyone apart, but ultimately it tells us nothing we did not already know.

[Scott Wilson – @HeartofFire]

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