Occasionally a theatre production arrives at a moment when, by coincidence, its resonance is amplified by external events. Patrick Mason's excellent Abbey Theatre revival of Frank McGuinness's 1985 play comes to London just as hopes of a renewed Northern Irish ceasefire are, it seems, finally buried. Following a group of Ulster Protestant army volunteers from joining up until their slaughter on the fields of France, Observe The Sons Of Ulster sensitively and sympathetically portrays them both as individuals and representatives of a culture, whilst quietly despairing at the militant bigotry of that culture's political and religious aspects. Seven months on from the production's initial British performances in the Edinburgh Festival, the play's subtexts have regained a gloomy immediacy; for this Northern Irish Protestant reviewer, it is at times almost ineffably moving.
Following the aged Kenneth Pyper's deathbed soliloquy to the ghosts of his long-dead comrades – a fine blend of oratory and emotion – Peter Gowen's young Pyper appears in the company's makeshift bunkhouse. Pyper, as befits his name, plays with consummate skill upon his fellows, whether cowing them with an assumed bearing of military command, adopting an air of languid effeminacy or deadpanning a ludicrous anecdote from his past to test the limits of their gullibility. Gowen is masterly in the role, giving himself up to the switchback changes in mood but maintaining the undercurrent of self-loathing which motivates Pyper's provocations.
As the bunkhouse fills with volunteers from across the province – a disillusioned preacher from Tyrone, an uneasy young Derry lad, an Enniskillen blacksmith, two UVF volunteers from the north coast and a brace of swaggering Belfast boors – the individual tensions and conflicts dissolve imperceptibly into an affirmation of communal identity, thanks to McGuinness's finely-geared writing. This precision is sacrificed at times during the overlong third act depicting pairs of the men on leave across the six counties, but McGuinness and Mason continue to muster moments of plangent power as Pyper and Craig become lovers on an island in Lough Erne and the Coleraine men try to find courage on a rope bridge on the Antrim coast. Lalor Roddy in particular comes into his own as Belfastman Nat McIlwaine on a mini-Twelfth of July march, bewailing the death of Belfast's pride and mortifying himself upon a Lambeg drum (because it is not done properly unless your wrists bleed).
The company's final bonding on the morning of the fatal offensive marries humour (in a piggy-back re-enactment of the Battle of Scarva) with growing fear and despair as the moment of reckoning draws near. The last ritual, in which the men first don then exchange Orange sashes, encapsulates at once all that is laudable in and all that curses the Northern Protestant identity: McGuinness (a native of Donegal, part of historical though not modern political Ulster) hates the sins but loves the sinners.
The production as a whole has lost a little fine tuning in the intervening months, and the least assured performances are noticeably in those rôles which have been recast. Nevertheless, it remains a mightily impressive staging of an exceptionally insightful play. We could all wish, however, that it had not been infused with a renewed topicality.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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