Sunday 26 January 2020

Theatre: A timely return on Somme's centenary

* Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, Abbey Theatre, Dublin, until September 24
* Inishfallen Fare Thee Well, New Theatre, Dublin, until August 20

From left, Marcus Lamb, Iarla McGowan and Paul Kennedy in Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme by Frank McGuinness. Photo: Johan Persson.
From left, Marcus Lamb, Iarla McGowan and Paul Kennedy in Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme by Frank McGuinness. Photo: Johan Persson.
Ronan Wilmot appearing in Eddie Naughten’s Inishfallen Fare Thee Well at the New Theatre in Dublin

Emer O'Kelly

It is more than 30 years since Frank McGuinness confronted his countrymen and women with a broken monolith: he shattered it into fragments of heartbreak, tragedy, and compassion as he presented the Sons of Ulster to us, the men who climbed from their dugouts into the slaughter of the Somme while wearing their Orange sashes as badges of brotherhood.

Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme was first produced by the Abbey on the Peacock stage in 1985, and gave humanity to a body of men dismissed until then, south of the border, with a contempt approaching hatred. It was heralded as close to a masterpiece by theatre lovers, but the political classes reserved judgement. We still had a long way to go.

Two thousand Ulstermen died on the first day of the Somme - more were to follow in the senseless and insane butchery - and thousands of Irishmen from what would later become the Republic also died: they fought as Irishmen, but the sons of Ulster fought as Ulstermen. Theirs was a cause that had, as they saw it, put their backs to the wall, and their proud heritage was at stake.

That their southern regiment brothers in arms were also fighting for king and country meant nothing to them. (Post-independence nationalist revisionism denied the commitment of southern citizens, popular history re-written to claim that the men went only because they were starving, unemployed and had no choice.)

Now, in the 100th anniversary year of the Somme, as well as the centenary of "our own" rebellion, we are seeing another production of this magnificent, groundbreaking, heartbreaking play at the Abbey, in a co-production with Glasgow Citizens' Theatre, Headlong and the Liverpool Playhouse.

As eight men in the prime of their lives await their fate in the mud and filth, their individuality and their fierce differences split them into pairs on a short leave home, to face old fears, to dread new, unknown ones, and to forge a bond that will be remembered years later only in the mind of Kenneth Pyper - failed artist, embittered homosexual and the only one to survive.

In some small aspects director Jeremy Herrin's production does not quite match the groundbreaking 1990s version of Patrick Mason, but it is still devastating in its impact. Donal Gallery plays Pyper (Sean McGinley is the prologue, old Pyper) and he rightly dominates the action, pivotal in his re-birth into comradeship and his burgeoning love for the blacksmith David Craig. But there are no poor performances among the eight, with Marcus Lamb as the lay preacher Christopher Roulston and Paul Kennedy as the despairing shipyard worker Nat McIlwaine, haunted by the memory of the Titanic disaster, particularly impressive.

* * * * *

If there was one thing Sean O'Casey was not, it was a genial old josser - he was cranky, a contrarian and unforgiving. He was also principled to the point of bloodymindedness, passionate, tenacious and unswerving to the end in his dedication to communism.

Which is why Eddie Naughten's one-man play Inishfallen Fare Thee Well, starring Ronan Wilmot at the New Theatre in Dublin, is rather too rose-tinted. Author and actor are obviously steeped (entirely justifiably) in their admiration for O'Casey and his genius, but a few warts would not go astray in the representation, rather than Wilmot playing him as a rather cuddly, all-forgiving old duffer.

Naughten also seems to have the Irish fuzziness about both communism and, indeed, atheism. He portrays O'Casey in old age remembering the tragic early death of his beloved sister, sighing "God rest her soul", and hoping she has "found her reward". Atheists don't believe in God, and they don't believe in an after-life.

Inishfallen Fare Thee Well deals with O'Casey's life until the time he decided to shake the soil of Ireland from his boots, largely influenced by Yeats' spiteful snubbing of his great anti-war play The Silver w. Records show that Yeats used the excuse that nobody was interested in the First World War - at a time when its broken victims were limping (and often raving) their way through the Dublin streets. The truth was there was probably more than a soupçon of jealousy in Willie's heart as he saw his protégé surging dramatically ahead into the realm of modern expressionism, and no longer in need of his lofty patronage.

Inishfallen is also dramatically compromised by being slightly undramatically chronological, with the 78-year-old O'Casey in his home in Torquay telling the story of his life from birth through boyhood and early manhood into acclamation as a playwright, and disillusion at the unrelenting Catholicism and, as he saw it (rightly, it has to be said), bourgeois/reactionary nature of the republican movement.

But there are a few nice pen pictures along the way of figures like Ernest Blythe and the pontifical economist George O'Brien, and there is a real sense of the Dublin poverty that inspired O'Casey's thundering rage - which is increasingly being compromised in 21st century productions of his plays.

We could, however, do without linguistic Americanised howlers like "gotten", which are a relatively recent pollutant of the English language, and would never have been used by O'Casey. He also would not have said "exasperate" when he meant "exacerbate".

But it's well worth seeing: a Dublin Theatre Company production directed by Gerry Gregg.


In my critique last week of Measure for Measure, a free production in Dublin Castle Gardens, I wrote that the character of Angelo was based on Eamon de Valera. In fact, as the director's programme notes pointed out, she based the character of the Duke on De Valera. My sincere apologies for my mistake.

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