One of Ireland’s most celebrated actors takes to the Abbey stage and gets to grips with Frank McGuinness’s famous play on war, writes Padraic Killeen
Following performances in the UK and Northern Ireland, the Abbey Theatre’s revival of Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching to the Somme – a co-production with a number of theatre companies in the UK – is now running on the Abbey’s own stage in Dublin, the place where Frank McGuinness’s bracing piece first debuted in 1985. The play centres on eight young men in the Ulster Regiment of the British Army during one of the most horrific military encounters in history, the Battle of the Somme.
In the play’s key role, Seán McGinley plays Kenneth Pyper, the group’s lone survivor who must combat the trauma of memory, both his own and that of Ulster. It’s a part that the Ballyshannon man – a pillar of Irish theatre, film, and TV for over three decades – will never forget, not least because it brought him to the Somme earlier this summer, when, on the eve of the centenary, the production was staged outdoors by the Ulster Memorial Tower in Thiepval.
“When you go there, you see the rows and rows of tombstones,” says McGinley. “And the big memorial in Thiepval to the 74,000 men who were never identified, the bodies obliterated from the face of the earth. And then you see the field of poppies, and you know this is where a lot of those bodies remain. And you go, ‘for what?’ For nothing. All the rhetoric of king and country, and fighting for the freedom of small nations, and all that crap – it’s just nonsense.”
McGinley says the rhetoric of war remains the same today, and – pointing to the parallels with modern warzones such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan – his contempt for those who send young men out to die is palpable.
“Well, I’ve got to be careful, because that can all sound trite and trivial compared to what those men actually went through,” he says.
“An actor in the 21st century giving out about it is kind of meaningless in a way. But when you see the tombstones and the bit of ground that they were fighting over, words kind of lose meaning. And that’s where Frank’s play comes in, I think. He transcends the subject matter and makes something beautiful out of something really ugly and horrible. I think that’s what he’s done. And I think the world benefits from that.”
The production was running in Belfast this summer when the annual Orange Order celebrations on July 12th were taking place.
“It’s very celebratory and joyous in many ways,” says McGinley. “The crowds were there all day. They were having a drink and there was a party atmosphere. And then when the bands returned from the fields later in the day, there was an incredible exchange of energy between the band and the crowd. And it was really celebratory, until you remember that it excludes half the population of the city.”
The island’s historical divisions – something that McGuinness’s play itself addresses – clearly remain, yet McGinley’s memories of the production also include the warm welcome of the Northern Irish volunteers in France who run the Ulster Memorial Tower and the personal interchange between the cast and young soldiers from East Belfast who – while doing drills in Thiepval ahead of official British Army commemorations – asked to attend the show.
“And we thought maybe the last fifteen minutes of the play might be too much for them, but all of them stayed and all of them were on their feet at the end,” he says. “They stayed and shook our hands afterwards and said that was amazing.” So theatre can make an impact, then?
“It can do,” says McGinley. “When you see something like that, you see the possibilities of it. And it helps you to get out of bed the next day – the possibility of that happening again.”
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