Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme

The artistic director of a major centenary revival of the seminal play on providing an outsider's perspective on Frank McGuinness's vision

Thirty-one years after its premiere at Dublin’s Abbey Theatre, Frank McGuinness’s Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme remains a potently tragic paean to an event both distant and familiar.

The eponymous campaign’s first day, July 1 1916, claimed the lives of thousands — a great many of them Irish — and embedded itself in the post-Great War identities of communities throughout Ireland, north and south.

For it was the soldiers of the 16th (Irish) Division and the 36th (Ulster) Division who bore the brunt. The latter’s fate on the blasted heaths of northern France was especially gruesome. Men from across what is now Northern Ireland gained the most ground on that doomed initial charge and the price they paid in blood – all those wasted, shattered lives – continues, even now, to define the collective psyche of Ulster Protestantism.

Truthfully, McGuinness’s masterpiece, which focuses on the troops of the 36th (Ulster) Division, grows in renewed significance as the anniversary of that first day approaches. In this Decade of Centenaries there are few that left so horrifying a trail of carnage.

It is fitting, then, that a new Abbey Theatre production of the play, currently touring the UK and Ireland, should divert to northern France in late June to perform on two consecutive nights in late June. The first of these took place at the Ulster Memorial Tower, Thiepval, on Wednesday — almost one hundred years to the day that battle commenced. The second, today, is hosted by the Maison de la Culture in Amiens.

Five days later (July 5), Observe the Sons of Ulster will begin its run at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast, a fitting venue for a story so intrinsically linked to the prism through which this place regularly views itself.

This latest iteration of McGuinness’s work has been generated by the Abbey (the holder of the rights), though responsibility for the project itself has been split between that venerable Dublin venue and the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow, the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse Theatre, and London-based touring company Headlong Theatre.

According to Jeremy Herrin, Headlong’s artistic director and the man behind this present interpretation, the chance to tackle McGuinness was irresistible. ‘I was fascinated to unpick what was behind the so-called sacrifice in 1916 and how that resonates today,’ he says.

Bringing to the milieu an outsider’s fresh perspective, having never before seen the drama performed prior to his own involvement, Herrin suggests that ‘there is a lot of ignorance around the history of Protestantism, and Orangeism, and loyalism. Frank McGuinness’s great achievement is to explore the legacy of the Somme.

‘It’s incredibly moving, but people tend to think about Ian Paisley, that sort of aggressive insistence. But actually it’s a really nuanced culture and people respect where they come from. Observe the Sons of Ulster is about how a group of young men deals with that.’

He believes that he was able to come at the material ‘without any prejudice’ or ‘subliminal axe to grind… It was my job just to make it work, to figure out what this line means and where this individual is coming from.’

His approach has crafted a version of McGuinness’s vision that he describes as ‘very real, very emotional and very dynamic,’ and one lately drawing praise from the playwright himself. ‘It’s a magnificent play,’ adds Herrin.

Observe the Sons of Ulster is, of course, no mere tale of men plunging over the top and into to the charnel houses of the Western Front. It is, instead, an intense study of comradeship in the face of imminent annihilation, of that which the director labels ‘the viscera of the Battle of the Somme.’ Each character is a representation of the humble, often callow souls who turned in their tools, their aprons, and even their sense of place, to fight, unquestioningly, for king and for country in a distant land.

Beyond that, however, the roots of our own late unpleasantness can be seen laid out in full: politics, religion, nationhood. ‘It is,’ says Herrin, ‘a brilliant meditation on the Troubles in Northern Ireland.’

Yet class, too, runs through the narrative. This is no accident. Social divisions have long stood as a little-discussed element of the Troubles and in the educated, artistic, aristocratic Pyper, McGuinness’s has conjured his self-loathing protagonist, and sole survivor, with a purpose.

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He is a gentle guardian of cherished memories protected as tribal folklore. ‘It’s about heritage, and what you’re prepared to die for, and what you’re not prepared to die for. It asks what remains of us when we go. What endures?’ says Herrin.

He points out that Pyper’s significance cannot be underestimated. ‘The confederacy that he finds with his comrades makes him accept where he comes from, against his better intellectual judgment. And yet he’s the one who survives and he’s the one who has to carry the torch and if that isn’t a metaphor for historical legacy, I don’t know what is. You can’t sell out your forefathers and any political question that asks you to do so is going to meet with serious trouble.’

An all-Irish cast — including Iarla McGowan, Chris McCurry and Paul Kennedy — will portray the ghosts who haunt Pyper (Seán McGinley/Donal Gallery). As far as Herrin is concerned, the necessity of selecting actors from Ireland was an important and self-evident proposition. That they can feel and understand the subtleties of meaning in the words goes hand in hand with something as essential as mastering the notoriously unwieldy northern accent.

Taken as a whole, this should go some way to strengthening the links between the audience and material that many know so well. ‘People coming to it can understand,’ says Herrin. ‘They have their own relationship with that sacrifice. So, to see it reflected and dramatised makes the evening very fertile.’

Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching towards the Somme runs at the Lyric Theatre, Belfast, from July 5 - 16, before moving to the Millennium Forum, Derry~Londonderry between July 19 and 21, Armagh's Market Place Theatre on July 23 and the Riverside Theatre, Coleraine on July 26. See venue websites for more information and ticket booking.