The LAST modern trilogy we saw in London was Billy Roche's subtle portrait of the joys and sorrows, cameraderie and oppressiveness of small-town life in his native (and eponymous) Wexford. Bill Morrison's new trilogy, at the Tricycle Theatre, is also Irish in setting, but there the similarities cease.
At once more ambitious (by one gauge of ambition) and less rewarding, A Love Song for Ulster is a bold attempt to recount the tortuous history of the province via a family saga, stretching from 1922 to the present day. It dramatises a dynasty with, at times, all the narrative dignity of Dynasty. Allegorical in intent, the trilogy comes across as the Higher Soap, often so brisk and diagramatic in its twists and turns that we'd have got the point about as effectively if the Reduced Shakespeare Company had been hired to do a three-minute version.
The intertwinings and divisions begin with the forced marriage of a Protestant and Catholic; John, a mild, farming Orangeman, and Kate (Orla Brady), left in the north by her treacherous family heading south. The Marriage follows the course of this relationship from resentment and rape through grudging affection to love. Predictably, gentle John is gunned down in a border raid by Kate's brother and she has scarcely been widowed five minutes before his tough, bigoted sibling, Victor, is brutally taking her from behind on top of the corpse. The result: that figure beloved of soaps and sagas, the son of doubtful paternity. Reared in the hard school of unsurrendering Protestantism by Victor, this young man - the strains on whom form the focus of the second play - offers a confusing physical reminder of his soul- parent, John, thereby keeping alive and complicating the mistrust between Victor and Kate.
Speaking dialogue that rarely rises above caption-level, Nicolas Kent's forceful cast strives to endow these symbolic ciphers with hints of three-dimensional life. Even they, though, are defeated by the third play, The Daughter, which covers events from 1969 to now and brings to the fore Anna Livia Ryan's radiant Anne, a peace-loving younger sister. When the equally peace-loving cousin arrives in Ulster out of the blue, the kettle hasn't come to the boil before Anne is teaching him how to kiss and whisking him off to a dance: 'Let's me and you fuck the past away.'
The microcosm of the family is then used to convey the emergence of the civil rights movement, Bobby Sands' hunger strike, the territorial ambitions of a Paisleyite minister, and direct rule in such a deliriously busy fashion that the effect is more than mildly Pythonesque.
Some of the comedy in this vibrantly staged production is intentional. A chatty pair of Ulster youths shift scenery and debate the significance of the Abraham and Isaac story which, with its image of vindictive fathers claiming divine sanction for the sacrifices they impose on their children, has an obvious relevance to Ulster. Brendan Coyle is outstanding in his double role as John the husband and Boyd the fluctuating son, while as Victor, John Keegan vividly traces the characters' slump from brute bigotry to moral exhaustion. A pity, then, that the actual drama should be such a pedestrian slog through unsurprising terrain and conclude on such an unconvincingly wishful note.
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