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.
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.
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.
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.