Stage preview: Play looks at future Irish enemies fighting in WWI trenches

By Sharon Eberson, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Tony Bingham is Nat McIlwaine (drum) and Jonathan Visser is George Anderson in PICT Classical Theatre's "Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme." Photo by Julia Rendleman/ Post-Gazette

Tony Bingham is Nat McIlwaine (drum) and Jonathan Visser is George Anderson in PICT Classic Theatre’s “Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme.” Photo by Julia Rendleman/ Post-Gazette

Matthew Torney was moved to tears just talking about the Battle of the Somme, so you know how very personal a play about World War I’s most deadly battle is for the director.

As he wiped his eyes he said, “Obviously, this is very emotional. That’s why it’s important to do. If you lose yourself in a conflict, you literally lose yourself.”

One million men were killed or wounded as British and French forces fought the Germans in 1916 at the River Somme in France, hundreds of them from what in the 1920s became what we know as Ireland. They were men from a mix of religious and regional backgrounds but united while fighting for king and country and in questioning their willingness to die for a cause — a moment of unity that has been lost at times as WWI fades from memory.

As Mr. Torney points out, the last of the Great War’s veterans is gone, another world war has come and gone, and still young men and women go off to sacrifice themselves for causes they believe in. Those conflicts include “The Troubles” in Northern Ireland, the sometimes bloody conflict that has pitted mostly Ulster Protestants who want to remain part of the United Kingdom against the mostly Catholic opposition who want it to become part of a united Ireland.

From that background, Frank McGuinness wrote “Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme,” a band of brothers story that imagines war in the trenches on a human, heart-wrenching level.

“I’m from Northern Ireland, so this play is extremely close to my heart,” said Mr. Torney, a native of Belfast who now lives in Brooklyn. “I recognize these men. What’s also interesting to me is, I was never allowed as a Catholic to remember the Somme or to celebrate The Twelfth [a 15th-century victory for Protestant king William of Orange]. It was seen as [belonging to Protestants], and it was very threatening. … In 1985, I think the reason Frank McGuinness wrote the play is, he wanted to understand, on a human level, the people on the other side of the conflict.”

The writer chose a moment when he could mix a band of future enemies in the trenches, learning to share humor and horror, rely on each other in the face of almost certain death. It was a time when strategy hadn’t caught up with advanced weaponry.

Mr. Torney’s research led him to “these crazy metaphors; one was ‘the wall of steel.’ ” It described leaving the trenches with no defense against a barrage of bullets and shells.

“Two days after the Somme, when the casualty lists were published, every second house …,” at this, the director apologized while wiping tears. His voice cracked as he continued, “On Shankill Road [which runs through Belfast], which is a very Protestant road, every second house had a black flag in the window. A generation of young men were annihilated. And then Frank McGuinness saw it as this was happening again in The Troubles. We are losing a generation of men. There’s a big line in the play, ‘Even if we survive, we’ll die in a way as well.’ I think that’s what he’s looking at.”

The first production of the play was at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, which was significant as it was written about the Ulster Protestants by a Northern Catholic playwright. Mr. Torney was a teenager when he was introduced to it at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre. He saw a touring production of it two years ago and studied it in school.

It’s obvious when he says, “This is a play I’ve always wanted to direct,” and not just because of the subject matter. Language is important to Mr. Torney, who also has the Neil Simon comedy “Plaza Suite” on his resume.

For this play, he had the support of PICT Classical Theatre head Alan Stanford to aim for authenticity, for himself, for his actors, to feel their way into the roles. It was decided that having the actors’ uniforms custom-made in India would cost the same as renting them. Some of the pieces were stuck in Customs hell for a while, but the director didn’t seem worried as he showed off hats and boots at the Charity Randall Theatre in Oakland two weeks ago.

He was having a ball with a large decorated Lambeg drum, used by the Orange Order in nationalistic celebrations such as The Twelfth. Scenic designer Johnmichael Bohach had traveled to Toronto to get the drum from a collector and drive it back.

The play opens with a monologue by a survivor of the battle and is told in flashbacks. It brings back to the PICT stage such actors as Martin Giles, Jonathan Visser, Tony Bingham and Dylan Marquis Meyers, a senior theater arts major at the University of Pittsburgh. Newcomers are Raife Baker, Byron Anthony and Ciaran Byrne, like Mr. Torney a New Yorker by way of Ireland.

For all the authentic trappings, the band of brothers are the point of “Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme.”

“It doesn’t have any easy answers, but it lets us spend time in one of the worst wars in history with men who are extremely proud of where they are from, of what Ulster means to them, of their religion, the culture,” the director said. “The divisions are all like rural vs. urban, upper class vs. lower class, different types of political identity, religious identity, and it shows how the humanity bonds in the face of violence. There are things that are bigger than our differences.”

Sharon Eberson: or 412-263-1960.Twitter: SEberson_pg.

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