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Vortex doesn’t shy away from pain in ‘Sons of Ulster’

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — You have to hand it to Vortex Theatre: Never shying away from difficult material, it continually produces theater that challenges itself and its audience. Its latest endeavor is Irish playwright Frank McGuinness’ 1985 drama “Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme,” which looks at eight Protestants from Ulster (where McGuiness is from) going off to die in the Battle of the Somme.

Caedmon Holland stars in “The Sons of Ulster Marching Toward the Somme.” (Courtesy of Ryan Dobbs )

The play is challenging, to an American audience especially, not so much because of its complex structure as for the layers and layers of history that are being dramatized. The Battle of the Somme, one of the deadliest in history, started on July 1, 1916, the same date the Battle of the Boyne commenced in 1690. In one scene, the young men jokingly reenact the Battle of the Boyne, with Protestant King William fighting Catholic King James. When William falls off his “horse” it suggests doom for these sons of Ulster.

These are proud Protestants from the north of Ireland going off to die for the king of England, whom they loyally support; but as one of them says, “We’re not making a sacrifice; we are the sacrifice,” a point that is highlighted by the absence of anyone of higher rank in the play. The men’s isolation is emphasized by pairing them up and dramatizing their desire and fear as they disclose them to the one man each is most drawn to. The theme of conflicted homosexual desire, particularly the sexual attraction of Kenneth and David for each other, is so subtle I would be willing to bet many in the audience did not catch it. (But Kenneth’s speech about marrying “a three-legged prostitute in France, the middle leg shorter than the normal two” makes his sexuality hard to ignore.)

The play is told in flashback and opens with a long monologue from Kenneth, the sole survivor of the battle. The year is 1969, more than 50 years later, and Kenneth’s anger and loneliness pour out in a tirade against God.

The problem with this production is apparent in this first monologue and persists, with few exceptions, throughout most of the play. While the drama is subtly constructed by its author, it is performed essentially on one note, a loud shrillness that grates and does not invite the audience in. As a rule, screaming should be the last choice and used sparingly, regardless of the emotion being conveyed. Intensity of emotion can take many forms of expression.

The set is constructed of cubes of various sizes and platforms, but the colors clash. A wood-grained brown monotone would have been preferable. The set was more effective, aesthetically, in the final act when everything was pushed downstage and barbed wire was displayed from end to end. Carolyn Hogan’s costume design looked quite authentic to me, as did the Lee-Enfield World War I rifles.

“Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme” plays through Sept. 22 at the Vortex Theatre, 2900 Carlisle NE. Go to or call 247-8600 for reservations.


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