FringeReview Scotland 2019
In a pub, in the east coast of Scotland, four millennials are sitting drinking when they get interrupted by a ghost from the past. He leaves a suitcase behind before disappearing as mysteriously as he arrived. The landlady, Ellen, enters to tell them that this keeps happening. Their confusion is straightened out by them becoming part of the tale of what is in the suitcases and the story of why the ghost keeps coming back. George, the ghost, was one of the 549 Scots volunteers who went off to fight fascism in Spain, leaving his home and his family along with three others – Jimmy, Bill and Jock. Two return with memories whilst two remained in Spain, as fallen heroes. On the way their individual hopes, fears and transformation from young laddies to members of the International Brigade is achieved with doubt, certainty and through the crucible of war.
The strength of 549: Scots in the Spanish Civil War comes in the narrative. Of the four young men, each has a distinct and separate reason for going to fight. We have the young firebrand with a cause in his belly, the youngster hoping to grow and become a man, the bored, angry and unsatisfied young gun who cannot wait to get stuck in and the young entrepreneur who sees fortune if he is favoured as the brave. It gives depth to the story and therefore perspective. The firebrand survives, along with the fortune hunter, both of whom have entirely different perspectives that mean we see things from an honest side and not from the misty eyed romantic spectacles often used to portray the events and the time when the war was something that people voluntarily fought.
The use of a conservative figure is particularly interesting given our current political landscape. We have a man who has clear views of life, though sufficient hypocrisy to be human. Rather than make him a pariah he is an accepted part of the whole community and given his place. Whilst others may have altruistic motives, he has the less pure but nonetheless equally shared stage time. His development does not come with a road to Damascus moment of enlightenment that turns him to the cause but an imprisonment that shows him a sense of the community he has lost. His transition to hero is not one that ends with applause but understanding; only he could go to fight and get imprisoned by his own side.
The structure of the piece was sound and gave space and platform to the different views of each character with the characterization drawn effectively to give us consistent and distinct voices from within the whole.
Where it began to feel a little ropey was the connection between the actors and the text. It felt a little behind schedule in rehearsal; showed at times a lack of absolute coherence. The directing was generally clear and crisp, the choreography well imagined. It was the integration of the whole and between them which was not wholly on the cusp of seamless; there felt like there was a step not taken and at times the connections between the characters were stretched rather than comfortable.
What kept the piece moving was the work of Rebekah Lumsden as Ellen who played the young landlady and a variety of oath parts to drive the narrative, giving us focus and she stood out amongst the collective. This was a performance that whilst not shying away from the horrors of war, we needed our hands taken to understand the way in which each character found their place and for at least two of them, found their ends. Her presence which managed to go with ease from bully to comforter, was nuanced and credible.
Having Michael Mackenzie will always be a boost and his presence gave gravitas and focus in equal measure whenever he took to the stage. Both anchored the piece well. Robbie Gordon, Cristian Ortega, Josh Whitelaw and Nicholas Ralph were a very good troupe but with movement and writing credits to Gordon’s name this felt like a stretch too far – though moving forward each had something that made you feel there was merit in it being individually in his hands.
The set was well crafted and the use of lighting and sound managed to add more depth to the performances. Having the piece onstage with the audience close on three sides was inspired and gave us a feeling of engagement that was highly appropriate for the piece.
The choreography was something I felt added a great deal and it made the performance much more of an event with a creative spin that was matched by the more mature approach to deromanticising the story.
It was however a story of four young men as representatives of the volunteers who went to fight Franco and was well told, with a creative flair that gives great comfort for this young company, marking it out as one for a future. Whilst there were certain areas where I think they could tighten it is a piece that has left its mark, as the 549 did in 1930’s Spain.