Richard Dormer, Eugene O’Hare, John Hollingworth, Mark Holgate, Billy Carter, Michael Legge, Owen Sharpe, Chris Garner, James Hayes
First appearing at the Hampstead Theatre in 1986, Frank McGuinness’s Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme tells of the fortunes of several Ulster Volunteer Force fighters during the First World War.
The UVF was founded in 1913 by Ulster Protestants to resist the establishment of a Dublin-based parliament.
But when its founder, Sir Edward Carson, struck a deal with Lord Kitchener to support Britain against the Kaiser in return for the postponement of Irish home rule, many Protestant northerners joined what became the 36th (Ulster) Division.
Sons of Ulster explores the characters of eight men who are thrown together in the same regiment. Each has his own background and reasons for fighting, but they all possess a sense of shared history. The play’s main strength, however, lies in its structure, which aids our understanding of the beliefs, hopes and fears of each protagonist, and in the way that its focuses on one individual in particular.
The opening scene presents an ageing Kenneth Pyper (James Hayes), the only one of the eight to survive the War. Speaking in the 1980s, he rebukes the audience for wishing to scrape over every detail of 1916, whilst lacking any real understanding of the associated horrors.
We then witness the eight men meeting for the first time in their barrack at the start of the War. By having each enter individually, or in pairs, we are given the opportunity to explore the motivations and aspirations of each, but all the time we are drawn back to the young Pyper (Richard Dormer). An apparently ‘happy-go-lucky’ figure, he declares that he enlisted because he had nothing else to do. Even when he is deliberately stirring, however, the distinction between what he says and truly believes remains intriguingly blurred. Whilst the others are patriotically optimistic, he remains fatalistic, and yet he follows up the slashing of his own hand with the cry of ‘to Ulster’.
Structurally, Act Two is quite different. Set during a brief period of leave, it presents four scenes simultaneously, each involving two of the protagonists. So, for example, we see John Millen (Chris Garner) coax William Moore (Owen Sharpe) into crossing a flimsy bridge, before implying that in a battle he would probably chicken out himself. At the same time, the young Martin Crawford (Michael Legge) argues with the Protestant preacher, Christopher Roulston (Billy Carter), over religion.
We also learn that David Craig (Eugene O’Hare) has just saved Pyper’s life. This leads Pyper to explain that he is from a traditional Protestant family, but an artist at heart. Since discovering, however, that he is only capable of preserving himself rather than creating anything, he has longed to die to end his miserable existence whilst perversely fulfilling family expectations of ‘sacrifice for the cause’.
But Pyper is now set on a new course and in the final scene in the trenches, where the previous pairings are mixed up, it is interesting to see how the other characters recognise him as a born leader who will survive the coming ordeal. This inspires Pyper to lead prayer and spout patriotic propaganda, not because he believes in either, but because when his comrades face certain death, he wishes that he could.
On one level, Sons of Ulster is a study in the futility of war, and it possesses a powerful apocalyptic ring as from the outset we are acutely aware of what fate awaits the men. Our attention is maintained, however, by the way in which every character is shown to be ambiguous in so many senses, so that we are never sure of the relationship between what each says and does. As a result, a few weaker moments occur when the points made do become more clich-ridden (such as when the religious Roulston realises that he is just a man like any other). Similarly, it is hard for the play to pack quite the same punch today as it would have done in 1986 when the opening scene would have been set in the present day, at a time when, Pyper claims, Ulster is once again under threat.
Nevertheless, with a superb cast that sees Richard Dormer as Pyper and Owen Sharpe as Moore shine in particular, Sons of Ulster is an intensely rich affair that more than justifies a trip to the Hampstead Theatre to experience.