Evening Standard April 10, 2002
Sounding of the last Orange post
Observe the Sons of Ulster...
Frank McGuinness's 1985 drama is a group portrait of eight Ulster Protestants who volunteered for the British Army at the start of the First World War. Atmospherically revived by James Phillips, it follows the recruits from the day of their enlisting, to the morning of their butchering in the cold mud of no man's land near the banks of the River Somme in France.
Crude, emotional, comedic and finally tragic, it's a moving requiem featuring homoerotic undercurrents, a crisis of religious faith, plenty of colourful anti-Catholic bigotry and an inevitable dash of traditional Irish blarney
Although it's a play which takes place in a military context, it's still a surprising choice of drama to accompany a season of debates, readings and cabarets at the Pleasance Theatre co-produced by the John Caird Theatre Company. The season is intended to look at the politics, morality and pity of war. McGuinness's play may be big on the pathos of its protagonists, but it doesn't have much to say about the business of war itself. Instead, it's more like an anthem for a doomed cuiture -especially when seen in the context of Protestant disaffection and unrest in Northern Ireland today.
Set in 1916, at a time when the Catholics in the South of Ireland were fighting for independence, the tragedy of these characters is that they are being eaten alive by the forces of history. With orange sashes around their necks, parade drums at their bellies and anti-Papist propaganda poisoning their minds, these are men who live and die by rhetoric. Just as their pride went down with the Titanic after it was built in Belfast shipyards, so this play sees these Orange Men as vainly fighting to preserve their ascendancy in Ireland -as much a losing battle as was the battle of the Somme.
The fates of the men amount less to a didactic commentary on the nature of war than to a solemn elegy sounding the last post on Protestant traditions.
Accordingly, James Phillips's production is as well drilied as a military funeral, giving the play the ceremonial flavour of a proud march towards the grave. Unusually the most outstanding feature of his production is Guy Hoare's lighting on David Farley's spartan set. Hoare carves up the stage giving thickness to the light with dry ice, and painting sepia tones from foggy grey to murky white. The apotheosis of Hoare's lighting comes in the end when these tragic Prods march to their deaths into what else but a blood-orange sunrise.
© - 2002 Evening Standard