Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

'Sons of Ulster' Battles Overacting

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

'Sons of Ulster' Battles Overacting

Article excerpt

"The Somme marked the end of an age of vital optimism in British life that has never been recovered."

- John Keagan, "The First World War"

One hundred years ago this month, World War I erupted into an explosion of blood-letting unprecedented in history. Neither side was prepared for the carnage, marching in 19th-century style with flags flying into modern machine-gun fire of 600 rounds a minute.

Unlike its allies and enemies, the British Army depended on the spirit of volunteerism to fill its ranks in the war's first years. One of the first groups rushing to join up was the Ulster Volunteer Force, Irish Protestants opposed to Catholic Ireland's bid for independence.

The men had been holding military drills before the war, so they knew how to march in formation, but like many of the British volunteers, not how to fight. Unlike those other volunteers, however, the Ulster men had a cause: the preservation of British- ruled Ireland.

Playwright Frank McGuinness, well-known and honored in his native Ireland, dramatized the spirit - and despair - of the 36th Ulster Division on the eve of the Battle of the Somme, five months of futile butchery in central France along the River Somme. Launched July 1, 1916, the Allied offensive soon failed although the Ulster men acquitted themselves well on that first day.

PICT Classic Theatre's executive director Alan Stanford brought the 1985 play to Pittsburgh and hired fellow Irishman Matt Torney to direct Mr. McGuinness' thoroughly Irish view of the Ulster brigade's place in the war.

He boils the division down to eight men centered on the unbalanced and effeminate Kenneth Pyper, whose outrageous behavior offends and angers the more conventional seven as they gather in the war's early years for combat in France.

Playing in the simple, but effective set design of Johnmichael Bohach, Raife Baker is a powerful character of contradiction, proud of his soft skin but strong enough to defend himself against the loutish Belfast shipyard worker George Anderson, an intimidating Jonathan Visser.

Anderson and his pal, Nat McIlwaine, played with a comedic touch by Tony Bingham, are dedicated Ulster volunteers, united in their hatred of Catholics and pride in their Protestant religion. …

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