Theatre review: 549: Scots of the Spanish Civil War

Robbie Gordon, Martin Donaghy, Manuel Ortega and Josh Whitelaw play the four Prestonpans miners who went to fight in the International Brigade in Sapin
Robbie Gordon, Martin Donaghy, Manuel Ortega and Josh Whitelaw play the four Prestonpans miners who went to fight in the International Brigade in Sapin
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THE title is 549, in memory of all the Scots who volunteered to join the anti-fascist International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s; but in truth, this new show from the Glasgow-based Wonder Fools company is really about four – a small group of miners from Prestonpans who, led by passionate socialist campaigner George Watters, left East Lothian in 1936 to make the historic journey to Spain.

Prestonpans Town Hall ****

So there is a special thrill in seeing the play performed, this week, in Prestonpans Town Hall, a building these men would have known well, in front of the kind of local audience, reliving part of their own history, that has been thin on the ground in Scottish theatre since the demise of 7:84 Scotland and Wildcat.

The play – co-written by Wonder Fools’ director Jack Nurse and actor Robbie Gordon, who also plays the young George Watters – uses a flashback structure to link some of the political tensions of today to those of the 1930s, with well-known Scottish actor John Stahl appearing as the older George, now a demanding ghost worthy of Hamlet.

And although the script is far from subtle, and the acting full of rough-and-ready stereotypes – from the working-class Tory to the young lad in search of sexual adventure – the show has a raw vividness that fairly pulses with energy.

With Robbie Gordon as movement director, Jack Nurse makes a particularly fine job of the physical aspects of the production, powerfully conjuring up the experience of fighting in the brutal battles of Jarama and Brunete.

Robbie Gordon as George, and Martin Donaghy as his friend Jimmy Kempton, 
represent the full spectrum of political commitment, from passionate socialism to sceptical individualism; Manuel Ortega and Josh Whitelaw complete the quartet as the young boy Billy Dickson and George’s hot-headed chum Jock Gilmore, both of whom died in Spain, while Jamie Marie Leary offers fine support in a range of male and female roles.

And if the play is never in doubt about the righteousness of the Spanish republican cause – the first half ends with a rousing chorus of the Internationale – it still raises some enduring questions about the horror of war, no matter how great the cause; and about whether contemporary politics offers struggles as well worth our commitment, even if they demand less blood.

JOYCE MCMILLAN

Prestonpans Town Hall, tonight, and Citizens’ Theatre, Glasgow, 13-17 February