There is an inherent contradiction between the abstract ideals that motivate a nation to send soldiers to war, and the concrete realities that confront those soldiers once they are engaged in battle. The former are often lofty and noble, calling forth heroic impulses from people inspired by the notion of sacrifice for a great and worthy cause; but are they enough to sustain a soldier’s courage and willingness to fight when faced with the brutal and nightmarish circumstances of the battlefield, and with the imminent reality of having to make that sacrifice?
That opposition – between the abstraction of war as a geopolitical tool and the reality of war in the trenches – is in many ways the guiding structural principle of Frank McGuiness’s play Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme. Set in Ireland and France in 1916, the play tells the story of a small group of eight Protestant Irish soldiers who volunteer to fight with the British in WWI and end up on the front lines on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Sons of Ulster opens with an elderly Kenneth Pyper (Martin Giles) summoning the ghosts of his younger self (Raife Baker) and his fallen comrades (played by Jason McCune, Ciaran Byrne, Byron Anthony, Justin R. G. Holcomb, Dylan Marquis Myers, Jonathan Visser, and Tony Bingham); we then see those characters relive their past, in a series of scenes that incrementally reveal more and more not only about each individual, but also about their relationships to each other and to the political and religious conflicts of Northern Ireland. United as these men are by geographical origin and a common enemy, there’s a good deal of diversity and conflict among them, which the play handles with a surprising amount of wit. One does not expect a play about World War I to be quite as funny as this play is in places, and the PICT ensemble brings out the humor with deftness and ease. That said, the play is serious at its core: in examining the plight of these ordinary men facing extraordinary challenges, it interrogates and excavates assumptions about men and masculinity, about what it is to ask men to fight and to die, and about how these men feel about themselves and their comrades.
As the play progresses, we gain deeper insight into the characters’ minds and hearts: we see not only the desperate rationalizations they cling to in order to make sense of their imminent deaths, but also their growing cynicism and despair. We don’t see any battle scenes staged; instead, the drama focuses on the men’s conflicts (both internal and interpersonal), on their fears and insecurities, and on the abstract (religious, political, aesthetic, and moral) ideals and principles that guide them and inspire them. As such, the play is often moving between registers of the mundane and real – for example, when characters play practical jokes on each other or cope with fatigue, cold, and bone-chilling fear – and registers of the abstract and ideal – as when they try to articulate their relationship to god or wax lyrical about their loyalty to the Unionist cause. The design of PICT’s production successfully underscores this structural opposition between the abstract and the concrete by pitting hyperdetailed realism in the costuming (Joan Markert) and props against a gestural and nonrepresentational set (Johnmichael Bohach), in which corrugated metal panels painted with flags (of Britain and (what I think is) Ulster) and stylized crosses stand for the larger forces at work in the character’s lives. The performances are not always as successful in making this opposition work, however: while the cast is uniformly excellent in the scenes that are most firmly grounded in realism – and digs very deep to give us the opportunity to bear witness to the psychological toll inflicted by the war – the lyrical flights taken by the script often feel writerly and border on cliché. Particularly in the third section, which is scenically the least naturalistic in its presentation of four simultaneously occuring events, nearly every character has a monologue that serves as a kind of aria, expressing some deeply held belief or idea or secret, and these monologues, in exceeding the eloquence of the character, come across as authorly at best, and platitudinous at worst. In this otherwise very fine production of a very compelling play, director Matt Torney has crafted the play’s powerful emotional journey with skill, but still needs to find the right tonal register for McGuinness’s quasi-operatic flights into idealism.