Review: 549: Scots of the Spanish Civil War at New Diorama

It is an era marked by crisis. Bloody conflict, economic collapse, and the rise of fascism at home and abroad. Governments break down, treaties are torn up, and a new world order threatens violence across Europe. The year is 1936, but it could easily be now.

549: Scots of the Spanish Civil War tells the story of the Scottish volunteers who fought fascism with the International Brigades. Split between 2017 and 1936, the play begins with a group of Scottish lads who, with the promise of free beer, are told how young men like themselves once went to fight for freedom. Through storytelling, memory, music and choreography, the play connects the present to the past, showing how the volunteers’ example has relevance for today.

Nicholas Ralph, Josh Whitelaw, Robbie Gordon and Cristian Ortega in 549. Photo courtesy of Mihaela Bodlovic (2019).

Nicholas Ralph, Josh Whitelaw, Robbie Gordon and Cristian Ortega in 549. Photo courtesy of Mihaela Bodlovic (2019).

Political theatre, particularly when it concerns historical events, can be divisive. Too much information and the play can become a lecture – too little, the play can become alienating to those unfamiliar with the history. 549 avoids these problems by being as informative as it is engaging, honouring the sacrifice of the volunteers without glorifying the brutality of war, nor the complex motivations that led these young men to fight.

Josh Whitelaw in 549. Photo courtesy of Mihaela Bodlovic (2019).

Josh Whitelaw in 549. Photo courtesy of Mihaela Bodlovic (2019).

On a performance level, there is not much to fault. From Robbie Gordon’s idealistic but naïve George, Nicholas Ralph’s crude and greedy Jimmy, Christian Ortega’s sweet but nebbish Bill Dickson, to Josh Whitelaw’s intemperate Jock, the young men are all uniquely drawn and brilliantly, convincingly performed. Rebekah Lumsden is also worthy of note, with a charmingly no-nonsense bartender who also happens to deliver some of the show’s most powerful moments.

The production is wonderfully considered and nimbly executed. Jack Nurse’s direction is imaginative, cutting between timeframes in a way that is both engaging and coherent. Catherine McLauchlan’s design is both beautiful and immersive, featuring evocative lighting from Benny Goodman and a moving yet understated score by VanIves.

Rebekah Lumsden in 549. Photo courtesy of Mihaela Bodlovic (2019).

Rebekah Lumsden in 549. Photo courtesy of Mihaela Bodlovic (2019).

One of the most striking aspects of 549 is the sense of loss that can be felt in throughout. The play is about a great many things, from fighting for one’s ideals to international solidarity against oppression, but it is also a story of sacrifice, sorrow, and tragedy. Many people died fighting for the Brigades, and they were unsuccessful in stopping Franco, nor indeed the greater forces of fascism which would soon engulf Europe in blood and horror. The play reminds us that, in fighting for what is right, there is always a cost.

549: Scots of the Spanish Civil War is a perfect example of theatre that can inform and inspire. As we face the threat of fascism, in Britain and overseas, we must learn from history, and have the courage to fight again. The war may have been lost, but the fight continues. Viva la Brigada.  

Review: The Resistible Rise of Arturo UI at the Arcola

Confession time – I have never read Brecht. Until last weekend, I had never seen one his plays performed either. While I am familiar with his theory of alienation (largely due to a popular film podcast), the work of this great and influential playwright has largely escaped me.

This sorry fact probably disqualifies me from any kind of ‘serious’ theatre criticism. I don’t believe you need to have read a lot of books to enjoy art, and theatre should be no different. But given my ignorance of Brecht, could I still appreciate his work? And what might graduate of East 15 acting school achieve with the material – written at a time when Europe was falling to fascism, and performed now, at a time when it appears to be rearing its ugly head once more?

Photo courtesy of E15 LDN.

Photo courtesy of E15 LDN.

The answer is yes, and the results are mixed. The Resistible Rise of Arturo UI satirises Hitler’s rise to power by trading Nazis for Chicago mobsters. Arturo UI, a tyrant in the mould of Capone, takes control of the vegetable trade through blood and intimidation, purges his enemies and associates, and then takes over the whole city. Despite my apprehension, it’s a simple enough tale. It is a shame then, that this production often lost me in the details.

To be fair, marshalling such a large ensemble onstage is no easy feat. The performers come from East 15’s International Cohort, and are all clearly enjoying themselves as larger-than-life gangsters, whose accents and lingo are so immediately recognisable you can practically hear the hand gestures.

I was particularly impressed with Sean Dale’s commanding intensity as Arturo, Amanda Zappia’s thuggish pomposity as Roma (a clear reference to Ernst Röhm), Constantine Pinotsis’s leering Giri, and Stephanie Van Driesen’s charming turn as the announcer, whose blend of carnival barker, fool, and Greek chorus, was a joy to watch.

Photo courtesy of E15 LDN.

Photo courtesy of E15 LDN.

The animal masks, while reminiscent of Art Spiegelman’s Maus, were a nice touch. Doberman dogs represent Arturo’s henchmen (or perhaps Hitler’s brownshirts), while rabbits and pigs appear as the abused and oppressed city-folk brought to heel. The transitions between location and scene are smooth and effective, and the play has an infectious energy and rhythm that never lets up.

There are laughs but, appropriately, horror too. The climax of the play is breath-taking in this regard, where a triumphant Arturo lords it over a people scared and defeated, and who must now accept his rule or die. There is also a particularly powerful rendering of the Night of the Long Knives, where Roma pleads for mercy before being silenced by Arturo. These scenes are chilling, not only in how they are performed, but considering the reality that they were written in 1941, by a man that had only just escaped Nazi persecution.

The Resistible Rise of Arturo UI is not always easy to follow, partly by its many characters, but mostly by its shifts in tone. The moments of darkness are commendable, but jar with the rest of the show, which seems to sit more comfortably as comic farce than dark satire. Perhaps this is the point, but an abundance of campy turns, from gee-whizz reporters to cackling goons, robbed the production of any tension, and made much of the proceedings feel about as sinister as Bugsy Malone.

Ultimately, it comes down to taste. As a fan of historical satire, I would have enjoyed a darker production with a little more teeth, and one perhaps more appropriate to our times. Chicago mobsters were relevant to Brecht but seem somewhat dated in 2019 – an era hardly short of hustlers from which to draw inspiration.

Despite my criticisms, this was a fun if at times confusing show, brought to life by a talented ensemble of young actors that I look forward to seeing on stage again soon. Now where to begin with Brecht…