I had expected a bit more in the way of fighting and warfare in The Fifth Column, set as it is in the Spanish Civil War of the late Thirties. There’s probably more ammunition and blood in the musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables than there is in this Ernest Hemingway play, and whenever the more direct consequences of warfare were on display, they seemed rushed through, as though the play was keen to pay only the homage vitally necessary to the atrocities before getting back to the love triangle with which it started, and repeatedly returned to. Perhaps this was very deliberate – a demonstration, if you will, of both war disrupting people’s lives and routines, and of people trying to carry on as normal in the face of death and destruction.
“I really enjoyed it,” was the consensus view, and the most common ‘exit poll’ response from fellow audience members; for one couple, their only criticism was that the interval felt too long (it wasn’t, for the record, any longer than an interval would be expected to be). Not since Once The Musical had I seen a show that started (in a way) long before the published starting time, and I daresay I might well have missed some of the live music had it not been for the Southwark Playhouse’s unreserved seating policy, as I entered the auditorium rather sooner than I ordinarily would elsewhere. I suggest going in at least ten minutes before curtain up to benefit from Ruben de Guillen’s very creative and enthusiastic singing and guitar playing.
The atmosphere already set by the time the lights went down, the production manages to maintain it throughout. This is a solid and unashamedly faithful-to-the-original-text production of a play from a previous generation, which the traditionalist in me absolutely adores. Even I would have to accept, however, that with no attempt to modernise or adapt any of the text or stage directions, some of the scene changes simply take too long, and it may have been prudent to look at alternatives that would make for a smoother ‘journey’ through the narrative given the constraints of the available stage space. Much as it pains me to say so, a more ruthless cutting of unnecessary scenes would have resulted in a much tighter show, even if it meant losing the interval as well.
With the adjoining rooms on stage, one could be forgiven for thinking, if one did not know any better, that one was about to settle down to enjoy a British farce. Frankly, there were enough doors on set to make it happen. As for the story itself, I managed to get so engaged in the show that I was, to use a well-worn cliché, on the edge of my seat at times. At other times, the story loses its way a bit – an interrogation of a ‘comrade’, for example, was not particularly convincing for me, and some of the detailed and lengthy dialogues between Philip Rawlings (Simon Darwen) and Dorothy Bridges (Alix Dunmore) felt a little vacuous.
Elsewhere, it seems outdated and, I’m sorry to report, lazy. Here the responsibility is placed firmly at the feet of Hemingway: one character is ordered to take a bath, and in so doing, this gets them off stage. Max (Michael Edwards) seems never to want to be on stage, begging and insisting to ‘go’ from wherever he happens to be, and thus depart almost every scene he’s in.
It is, as is usually the case at Southwark Playhouse, a strong and well-cast company, and aside from Darwen and Dunmore, there are particularly noteworthy performances from Sasha Frost as Anita, described in the programme as ‘a Moorish tart’ – the character not the actor (!) – and Stephen Ventura, whose character is known only as ‘Manager of the Hotel Florida’. In the manager’s case, think Manuel in BBC Television’s Fawlty Towers with a diploma in English for Speakers of Other Languages.
It’s not Hemingway’s finest work, to be blunt, with a surprisingly simple plot that takes, with hindsight, rather longer than it should to complete. That said, I would suggest seeing it if you are a fan or follower of Hemingway’s literary output. It would be a surprise if another production of The Fifth Column came along any time soon, and it would be a bigger surprise if it were to be done with a similar level of skill and flair as it is performed for the next few weeks at the Southwark Playhouse.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Two’s Company and Karl Sydow, in association with Master Media, present the London premiere of The Fifth Column by Ernest Hemingway.
Madrid, 1937 – the height of the Spanish Civil War. In a hotel during the bombardment by Franco’s artillery, two American war correspondents fall passionately in love.
Around them, people are struggling, often comically, to survive; and the idealism of the young men who came to fight with the International Brigades is contrasted with the ruthlessness of civil war.
Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls is the great classic of the Spanish Civil War. The Fifth Column too, a life and death story of counter-espionage, speaks with his own inimitable voice.
Based on real events, and real people – Hemingway was there, with his lover Martha Gellhorn, one of the first women war correspondents – the play appears in London for the first time and marks the 80th year since the Spanish Civil War began.
Director Tricia Thorns
Set Designer Alex Marker
Costume Designer Emily Stuart
Lighting Designer Neill Brinkworth
Sound Designer Dominic Bilkey
Cast: Elliot Brett, Elizabeth Jane Cassidy, Catherine Cusack, Simon Darwen, Alix Dunmore, Michael Edwards, James El-Sharawy, Sasha Frost, Carl Gilbey-McKenzie, Joshua Jacob, Harvey Steven Meneses, Michael Shelford and Stephen Ventura.
24th March – 16th April 2016