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Friday 30 September 2016

Wartime drama and The Battle of the Somme: a Q&A with Bryony Shanahan

The Battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916. British and French armies fought against the German Empire, and more than one million men were wounded or killed, making it one of the bloodiest battles in all of history. 2016 marks the 100th anniversary of that fateful battle, and Headlong are on a UK tour with Frank McGuiness’ iconic war play Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme.

This epic wartime drama has made us think of theatrical representations of war, and how brutality, trauma and grief is depicted on stage. From the utterly compelling and dramatic Journey’s End, based on R. C. Sherriff’s personal experience in the WWI trenches, the farcical musical Oh, What A Lovely War, where comic performance is used as a security blanket for the harsh realities of war, to the classic in wartime literature, Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong, it is clear that every wartime drama has a different method of portraying trauma and violence.  

This week we chatted with Bryony Shanahan, Assistant Director for Headlong, all about the show, the Irish playwright Frank McGuiness and Headlong’s ambitions for a production with such historical significance…  

Q: Bryony, many wartime dramas represent the violence of war without showing violence on stage, whereas others aim to shock audiences with its barbarity. How did you and the director Jeremy Herrin wish to portray the traumatic history of The Battle of the Somme on stage?

BS: Despite the fact that Frank McGuiness’ play is set amongst the horror of The Battle of the Somme, this piece is not just a historical drama. The imagery throughout the production is explicit, we don’t question the hideousness of war, but it’s much more about the love between the men in the 36th (Ulster) Division. From friendship to romantic relationships, we explore how these are deeply affected by the trauma and violence of war. In lots of ways, this is more poignant than any bloody scene we could depict – not one of them is untouched by the horrors in some way.

Q: And does Frank McGuiness’ personal history as an Irish playwright come into play within the script?

BS: Yes, it focuses on the role that Ireland played in the war, and especially the 36th (Ulster) Division. Just at the point in the play where audiences might expect to go to the frontline, there is a scene set back home in Ireland when the men are on leave. So instead of seeing their struggles and battles directly, we see the stark differences between the men who signed up, and who they are now.

Q: What was Headlong’s main artistic objective for this production?

BS: Frank McGuiness talked passionately about depicting Protestant culture at that time, the complex situation in Ireland in 1916, and the relationship that these men have had with their country and faith.

The play also boldly pushes ideas about men at the time. At the heart of the piece is a romantic relationship between two men, which obviously would have been dangerous for them to navigate. The director Jeremy didn’t want to shy away from this, and aimed to honestly portray them without caution.

Q: Headlong’s tour marks the 100th anniversary of The Battle of the Somme, do you think this historic occasion was the main ambition for audiences coming to see the show?

BS: Even though 100 years ago seems a long time, it really wasn’t. It’s the lives of your grandparents, or great grandparents, and therefore these events remain within touching distance. We took the production to the River Somme on the anniversary of the battle, which was an incredibly moving and surreal experience. There’s something about theatre that can help you understand the events in a way a history book might not be able to, and I think this play offers that to an audience.

Q: And lastly, what do you want audiences to take away with them after seeing the production?

BS: It can be different depending on where you are! When we were in Belfast and Northern Ireland, it was a chance for audiences to see a vivid piece of their history. However, in England it can be much more of an eye-opener; to appreciate the sacrifice of the 36th (Ulster) Division, and to serve as a reminder of the human cost in a personal way. Hopefully it’s a stark warning of how we must learn from the horrors of this war in the hope that we won’t ever repeat it.

Lastly, as it is theatre, if people have come away and laughed, cried or have been moved in some way, we have done our jobs.

Observe the Sons of Ulster Marching Towards the Somme is on our stage Tuesday 4 – Saturday 8 October. Click here for more information: