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549: Scots of the Spanish Civil War

at Prestonpans Town Hall

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Wonder Fools’ spirited performance can’t match the best political theatre.

Image of 549: Scots of the Spanish Civil War

Scotland’s role in the Spanish Civil War is a very important part of its socialist and internationalist history. Indeed, Wonder Fools‘ play on this theme has sold out not only in Prestonpans but in its run at the Citizens Theatre next week. The play ends with the reading of the speech by La Passionara, Dolores Ibarruri, the great Spanish republican whose statue is on the side of the Clyde as a tribute to the 549 Scots who fought in the Spanish Civil War. It’s a fascinating political story, and maybe it’s unfair on this young company, but one can easily reflect back on how 7:84 or Wildcat or even Unity Theatre or Joan Littlewood and Ewan MacColl’s Theatre Workshop might have done the play better.

The show is based on the story of four miners from Prestonpans who decided to go together and fight in the Spanish Civil War. It involved 18 months of research among family members of the men, plus archives of the period. The piece is performed in the round in the old town hall of Prestonpans, making it very immediate – the actors end up almost on top of the front row audience at times –  but it also maybe limits its theatrical impact. It will be interesting to see how the Citizens produces it next week.

The play opens with four young men from the Pans today drinking and chatting at a table before the audience even comes in – a bit of Brechtian alienation. A young guitarist strums away on stage and the landlady gives them a hard time about their language. The scene is transformed by a time shift triggered by the appearance of a ghost of one of the miners, played very effectively by well-known Scottish actor John Stahl, who leaves them a suitcase with memories of the period in it. This transforms the lads into into the four young miners who went to Spain and the landlady becomes their commander and trainer. They then enact their training and their drinking, and later take part in the Battle of Jarama where many young Scots in the International Brigade died.

It is a spirited performance; the actors use the chairs and tables of the set to construct barricades and literally throw themselves about on the stage. At times it is moving and occasionally shocking. The local audience in Prestonpans enjoy it and, talking to them afterwards, seem very pleased that their history is being re-enacted in their town hall.

However, it’s unsatisfactory in a number of ways. Firstly, the complexity of the politics of the Spanish Civil War never comes out. The divisions between the Communists and the POUM which Orwell writes about so well in Homage to Catalonia are barely mentioned. The music isn’t very effective, and choreography uneven when compared to the best, and the lighting, while difficult to arrange in a town hall in the round setting, often tends to blind rather than illuminate, something which maybe will be better in the Citizens.

The actors themselves – Martin Donaghy, Robbie Gordon, Jamie Marie Leary, Cristian Ortega and Josh Whitelaw – give spirited performances and Stahl is very imposing as the ghost. However, the script doesn’t really allow them to become much more than agitprop players. The company have clearly tackled this important part of Scottish history seriously, but while it is already a success in audience terms, it doesn’t quite match the best of Scottish political theatre.