Wednesday 1 July 2009

A war on two fronts

Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, Hampstead Theatre, London

Having received its UK premiere at the Hampstead Theatre almost twenty-five years ago, Frank McGuiness’s text retains much of interest. While its glimpses of generic trench-life in World War One fall into familiar motifs – hellish conditions, shellshock, lack of supplies – it garners force through its presentation of a political state less proverbial; namely, the Irish civil war that sat against the backdrop of German-Allied hostility.

Thus, the troops we witness variously at conscription, on leave and in the build up to their personal big push in the Somme offensive that will kill seven of the eight, are always fighting a war on two fronts. On top of the jaded green of the British uniform, each wears the orange sash of Ulster, identifying themselves as a faction of the whole. In their final moments before embarking into no man’s land, it is to Ulster that they pledge their allegiance.

In the midst of this is, McGuiness takes a more personal approach by showing individual relationships blossoming within the unit. There is the underlying attraction of Richard Dormer’s Pyper and Eugene O’Hare’s Craig; the whirling, brutish machismo of Anderson and McIlwaine and two different existential crises – one secular, one religious. However, John Dove’s direction stumbles into the clunkiness of these individual scenes, particularly in the second act, which lacks momentum.

As such, there is a great deal of frozen posturing, which allows an easy sentimentality to creep into Dove’s production. Against Michael Taylor’s ever-changing sky, it is too reliant on the inherent nobility and tragic waste of the man in uniform. Rather than truly making us bleed for the characters presented, it tugs at our sadness of the abstract idea. These soldiers are too often manikins stilly representing a generation.

As the younger Pyper, Dormer does well to prove an irritant, akin to the lice that infest the men’s environment, but errs towards flamboyance where feyness would have done. The result is a picture of homosexuality too modern and too obvious from the off. Nor does he find much connection with his gruff, husky older self, played with a Beckettian absurdity by James Hayes. By contrast, Eugene O’Hare finds a touching side to Craig by playing precisely on his own internal conflict with social norms of the time.

But it is the influx of oppositional force from John Hollingworth and Mark Holgate as Anderson and McIlwaine that makes the play – suddenly the unit is permanent watchful, permanently wary, both from within and without, as they prowl around in its midst. A war on two fronts, indeed.

Till 18 July 2009


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