Hampstead Theatre, London NW3
Opened 23 June, 2009

The last time London saw Frank McGuinness’s masterpiece, in 1996, the Northern Irish ceasefire had just broken down; on the day that John Dove’s revival began its run, news broke that several loyalist paramilitary groups in my homeland had finally begun decommissioning their weapons. It makes for a more hopeful resonance with this remarkable piece of writing.
In telling the story of a group of Ulstermen enlisting during the First World War, McGuinness finds scope to meditate on so many aspects of identity and humanity, both individual and collective, universal and Ulster-specific. The play centres on the wilfully eccentric, self-punishing Kenneth Pyper, but each of the eight manifests a troubled heritage, both peculiar to themselves and as an incarnation of the sometimes perverse determination of the Ulster character. Each seems to desire at once to escape this heritage and to stand as its culmination, to transmute it alchemically within himself. We see their initial power-plays and mind games, a series of duets when they are on leave (all four being intercut in playing time), and finally a kind of communal Gethsemane in the Flanders trench as they prepare to go over the top.
Richard Dormer proved several years ago with his solo show Hurricane that he can command attention on a stage, and he makes an excellent Pyper here, whether brooding quietly, testing his fellows’ gullibility or immersed in his personal angst. Eugene O’Hare is a discreet foil to him as David Craig, with whom Pyper consummates his love on an island in Lough Erne during the furlough sequence. This is, though, less a climax of homoeroticism than one of the fullest realisations of the homosociality which pervades the play, as the eight negotiate their own paths of maleness and masculinity. In a strong ensemble piece, Billy Carter and Michael Legge also deserve mention as a crisis-stricken Tyrone lay preacher and a Derry lad scared that his blood may carry the taint of Catholicism.
Once in a great while the sense descends upon me of being privileged simply to know the work of a particular theatremaker. The defiant poeticism of McGuinness’s best writing such as this, at once wrestling with itself yet standing proud in heartfelt candour, brought on such a wave of feeling in me on opening night. McGuinness’s new version of Euripides’ Helen opens at the Globe in August; meanwhile, this production runs on through Northern Ireland’s own marching season next month.
Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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