Caught between the Tron’s month of reflection on the Easter Rising of 1916, and the National Theatre of Scotland’s The 306, about those shot for desertion on the western front, here is the mighty play – the great Irish act of memory, dreaming and challenge – that brings together these two great narratives of that momentous year, a century ago.
Observe The Sons Of Ulster Marching Towards The Somme | Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow | Rating ****
Arsehammers/Bonfire Night | Oran Mor, Glasgow | Rating **
First seen in Dublin in 1985, Frank McGuinness’s masterpiece is a play by a northern Irishman from the Irish and Catholic side of the Border about the very heart of Ulster Protestantism, the dream of fierce loyalty to king and empire, of defence of their community, and of manhood proved in battle, that led tens of thousands of young Ulstermen to volunteer for the British army during the First World War.
No subtlety of the situation escapes McGuinness, of course, as he first assembles his eight soldiers in a Belfast training barracks. He knows that a quarter of the volunteers were Catholics, and that some men, even then, rejected conventional ideas about masculinity. We already know, from a brief prologue, that his central character Pyper is to be a survivor, an angry, satirical homosexual in an overwhelmingly macho environment; but every one of the other seven is also a great, complex, argumentative and humorous character, as McGuinness’s huge, word-rich three-part play sweeps them through that opening scene, then observes them on leave some months later, and finally accompanies them on their last morning on the Somme.
Observe The Sons Of Ulster Marching Towards The Somme has never been a comfortable play for those who like things simple, in terms of culture, sexuality, or Irish politics. Yet given a production as rich, beautiful and compelling as Jeremy Herrin’s for Headlong – co-produced with the Citizens’, the Abbey, and Liverpool theatres – this is an epic drama that demands recognition for the male human animal in all his complexity, across any boundaries of belief or belonging we care to construct; and it’s brought to life here by a superb cast, led by Donal Gallery as Pyper, Ryan Donaldson as his love Craig, and Sean McGinlay as the aged Pyper, still so haunted by memory that he might almost as well have died with his comrades in Flanders, that day in 1916.
Also from Ireland, and from CallBack of Limerick, comes this week’s Play, Pie A Pint show, a double bill of short monologues about the consequences of caring for the old and Alzheimer’s-struck, written by the ever inventive Claire Dowie. In the first, we hear from a little lad whose much-loved grandad has what he thinks is called Arsehammers; in the second, the speaker is a no-longer-young woman driven to violence by a random careless driving incident that has robbed her of her mother, and plunged her into a loveless life of caring for her old father. Yet in the end, despite two boldly stylised performances by Cora Fenton, neither character is even slightly convincing; and although this diptych is a characteristically left-field response by Dowie to the pervasive dominant theme of current playwriting, it provokes only the odd burst of surprised laughter, before subsiding into silence.
• Observe The Sons Of Ulster at the Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, until 4 June; Arsehammers/Bonfire Night at Oran Mor, Glasgow, final performance today.