Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe

Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme

The Vortex Theatre
Review by Dean Yannias

Also see Carla's review of Harvey

The Cast
Photo by Ryan Dobbs
I needed a history and geography lesson just to understand the title of Frank McGuinness' Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, now in production at The Vortex Theatre. I knew the Battle of the Somme was the deadliest battle of World War I, and one of the deadliest in history. It lasted five months, but on the very first day, the first of July 1916, more than 19,000 British troops lost their lives. The farthest push forward against the Germans was made that day by battalions from Ulster, with extremely heavy casualties, but it was mostly for naught as they were pushed back later that night. There was no draft at the beginning of World War I. All of these young men who died were volunteers for king, country, and above all, the glory of Ulster.

I thought of the Ulstermen as being from Northern Ireland, but that's not entirely correct. For one thing, Northern Ireland did not exist in 1916. The entirety of Ireland was still part of the British Empire. Ireland has four provinces; Ulster occupies the northern part of the island and consists of nine counties. When Ireland gained independence in 1922, the stipulation was that any part of Ireland that wanted to remain part of the U.K. could. Six counties in Ulster that were predominantly Protestant immediately joined the U.K. and became Northern Ireland; the other three are part of the Republic of Ireland.

Some degree of animosity has probably existed between the Protestants of Ulster and the Catholics of the rest of Ireland ever since the Battle of the Boyne on July 1, 1690 (note that the Boyne took place on the same day of the month as the Battle of the Somme). King James II of England had been deposed in 1688, a major reason being that he was Catholic, whereas Britain was predominantly Protestant ever since Henry VIII. He fled to France. His daughter Mary, who was a Protestant, was already married to William of Orange from the Netherlands. They were invited to rule Britain and we remember them now as the famous William and Mary. James, with an army that included French troops, tried to conquer Ireland, but William and his army landed in Ulster, defeated James at the Boyne River, and he fled back to France, never to return. The Protestants had won. They never succeeded in turning most of the Irish Catholics into Protestants, though, leading to conflicts that persist to this day.

There's much more that one needs to know to appreciate all the political and cultural nuances of this play. I assume that Irish audiences and most British audiences would find the play richer, but for American audiences, it is essentially a play about soldiers at war. It almost doesn't matter which war, except that you know because it's the World War I and it's the Battle of the Somme, almost all of these men are going to die. You know the ending before the play even starts.

The play begins with a monologue, mostly railing against God, by an old man who is the only surviving member of the squad. As he remembers his dead comrades, they appear on stage almost as ghosts. We then see them meet each other when they first share barracks, before heading off to France. We learn some of the things that they espouse: their pride in being Ulstermen and their hatred of all Papists (Catholics) and Fenians (other Irishmen who were trying to create an Irish state independent of Britain). Throw in a bit of homophobia too.

Seeing as how playwright McGuinness is from County Donegal, one of the Ulster counties that did not become part of Northern Ireland, I wonder what he intended for us to think of these men. Is he glorifying them as heroes for their bravery and sacrifice? Or should we view them as an overly prideful, bigoted lot, intolerant of anyone who isn't an Ulster Protestant? Did they enlist just because they felt a duty to maintain the reputation of Ulstermen as fearless warriors and because their lives were going nowhere?

In act two, they have returned home on leave from France, all suffering some degree of shell shock. (A few years ago, I saw an exhibit of Dada art at the National Gallery in Washington. The Dada movement began as a reaction to the absurdity of World War I and its casualties that amounted to 40 million people. The docent made an interesting comment about how the military has since then tried to downplay the trauma that soldiers experience, by progressive euphemizing: "shell shock" became "battle fatigue" became "post-traumatic stress disorder.") We see them struggling with some of the same PTSD issues that we have become familiar with from other plays and movies. The one thing distinctive about this scene is the beginning of a gay relationship between two of the soldiers.

The third act takes us to the battlefield on the early morning of July 1, 1916. I expected that watching these eight young men prepare to lose their lives would tear me up emotionally. Instead, it pretty much left me cold. The main feeling that struck me throughout the play was not empathy or rage at the absurdity of it all, but that of time passing—in my life, not theirs. The script reminded me of that famous line from Amadeus: "Too many notes!" Except here, there are too many words. As a sharp audience member remarked to me: "The Irish produce an awful lot of writers but not enough editors."

Add to the verbiage the Irish accents and some unfamiliar lingo and it becomes a chore to keep up with the dialogue. At times, while I was trying to decipher what was just said, I missed part of the next line. In an apparent effort to help the audience understand, the actors speak really loud. But, just as talking louder doesn't help one understand a foreign language any better, it's of little help here.

However, the acting, except for the volume, is excellent overall. Some of the actors suffer what I call "accent fatigue," which means that they start the play sounding Irish and end sounding as much American as they sound Irish, but that's forgivable. Phillip J. Shortell gives his usual fine performance at the beginning of the show, but it's a pretty small role. Among the eight soldiers, to single out a few seems unfair, because a lot depends on their roles and how they are directed. However, it's always a pleasure to see Micah McCoy in an Irish play. The first time I saw him do an Irish accent, years ago, I couldn't believe he was American. You can guess at his character's sexuality by the way he smokes.

Micheal Weppler is another Albuquerque actor who never disappoints. He pairs here beautifully with McCoy. Parker Owen and Caedmon Holland do a fine job of portraying two longtime friends who frequently bicker but truly support each other during the hard times. Tim Riley doesn't display any subtlety as the preacher, but maybe none is written into the role. Stuart Neef is very good partnering with him in some extended scenes. Yannig Morin and Christopher Dempsey also act well, but I found their characters the least interesting and pretty much superfluous.

Marty Epstein has wanted to direct this play for a long time, more than 20 years. Since he is a war veteran, he surely has more of a connection to the script than most of us. I'm glad he was able to assemble a fine cast and crew in order to realize his goal of bringing it to Albuquerque. I just wish that I (not a veteran, not Irish) found the play itself more engaging.

Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme, through September 22, 2019, at The Vortex Theatre, 2900 Carlisle Blvd NE, Albuquerque NM. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30, Sundays at 2:00. Tickets are priced from $17 to $24. For information and tickets, visit