Left – Karl Cottee and Kevin Dee. Cover – David Passmore and Mathew Gelsumini. Photos – Fred Kroh
Frank McGuinness' deeply compelling anti-war play was written in 1985 and audiences today in Melbourne may well ask the significance of re-telling a story that is pervasively rooted in the past.
But if there are advantages of sharing the embittered story of Pyper as he struggles to confront the ghosts of his past, country and sovereign; it is certainly done well by the ensemble cast of Hoy Polloy under the direction of Steve Dawson.
McGuinness' writing is both swift and eloquent and it is particularly powerful to see an accomplished set of actors explore the full gamut of motives that drive men to war. Religion, love, homeroticism, guilt and loyalties are explored in depth and the ensemble sucessfully offer a deep and moving engagement with a story that, although not explicitly made clear, does remind us of the very current climate of war.
Opening with a very post-apocalyptic declamation by the elder Pyper (played superby by Ian Rooney) we are transported back to his memories and introduced to a younger version, also played with excellent presence by Dan Walls. And so the journey begins, like the Pied Piper's enchanting tune, we too are taken on a voyage into the past of how a group of men, some no older than boys, banded together in the face of untimely death.
The highlight of the play is most certainly the re-enactment of the Battle of Boyne which gives the second half of the show a much needed lift, especially after a rather awkwardly placed interval. The set is sparse and designed in the shape of a crucifx offering different perspectives to its audiences and the lighting while simple is effective. The use of the mists is evocative and best of all the harmonies of the boys were excellent.
The programme makes special emphasis of the anti-Catholic sentiment and the fact that McGuinness is a Donegal man himself, but the writing itself does not harp on binaries. In fact the former clergyman Roulston (well played by David Passmore) finds an unexpected renewal at the depths of his stumbling faith through the friendship and brute honesty of fellow soldier Martin Crawford whose youth and exuberance are brought to the fore by Mathew Gelsumini.
Other notable performances were also given by Kevin Dee as the authoritative George Anderson, particularly as he orchestrated the Battle of Boyne and Angus Brown as the robust John Millen. As Pyper's friend and lover David Craig is shy and innocent, and Nicholas Brien does well in helping establish a key relationship among this brotherhood.
While some accents were certainly stronger than others there were only a few phrases that occassionally twanged and overall it was a solid effort put in by the cast to develop reasonable Irish accents.
There were other minor issues, mainly dramaturgical, overall it was a very good accomplishment and a true example of Hoy Polloy's ongoing versatility.
Hoy Polloy presents
Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching towards the Somme
by Frank McGuinness
Directed by Steven Dawson
Venue: Mechanics Institute Performing Arts Centre | cnr Sydney and Glenlyon Roads, Brunswick
Dates: 28 July – 13 August 2011
Times: 8pm Tuesday – Saturday
Tickets: $30 Full | $24 Concession