I recall having lunch with Frank McGuinness at the time of his Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me, which I greatly admired. He was charming, jolly, and voluble—the only trouble was that, given the thickness and rapid fire of his brogue, I understood little of it. Sitting through his Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, I had a similar experience. The American actors were so good at their Irish that I often lagged behind. The bigger problem, though, was what the play was trying to say.
Here were eight Ulster soldiers in the World War I British Army, headed for death in the debacle of the 1916 Battle of the Somme. But what were all their bondings and animosities about? What of their mercurial shenanigans, their obscure reactions to one another? Their seemingly unmotivated hatreds and ambiguous loves? I could see most, but not all, of the dots, but not how to connect them. References to Irish mythology and historic battles were confusing, and the Parisian back-story of the protagonist, Pyper, remained muddy. And what exactly was the relationship of the 80-year-old Pyper of the prologue and epilogue to his 20-year-old self?
Political and religious elements stagger through the story—Home Rule versus Free State, Protestant versus Catholic—but do not seem to come to resolution. And who are these eight men, anyway, isolated from all other soldiers, and with no officers in charge? Merely symbols? Was it my fault or the author’s that I was stranded?
All the actors struck me as irreproachable, and Nicholas Martin’s direction, on Alexander Dodge’s starkly beautiful sets, strikingly lit by Donald Holder, was probably masterly. Here and there, a bit of dialogue or intense activity sprung to life, but what did it all portend? Largely riven until then, the men were—all but Pyper—united in their death, which they both dreaded and desired, and could accurately foresee. Why was Pyper spared? My head was spinning. Perhaps if I had been given the text, I could have more than just observed these men of Ulster. Then again, perhaps not.