What do we die for? What unites us? What change can one person make? What does this have to do with the lives of four ordinary men from Prestonpans? Big questions asked by 549: Scots of the Civil War from Wonder Fools theatre company. I shall tell you; its four blokes from Prestonpans who volunteered for the International Brigade fighting Franco in the 1936 Spanish Civil War. And its four blokes sitting in a pub in modern Prestonpans who open up proceedings before interrupted by the ghost of George Watters – one of those who went to Spain.
As you may hope for in a play about the wrench and exertion of war, this is full of physicality. Careful choreographing and brilliant use of the diverse bodies (hurrah, not everyone is white, male, slim and perfectly symmetrical!) on stage creates a journey across the Pyrenees, life on the front line and sharing a pint. It’s slick, it’s clean, it’s lively, it’s great.
The characters – the ill-informed liberal, the snarky Tory, the ideological but disillusioned would-be radical, and the young one who is most clearly focused on losing his virginity – are painted effectively with attention to detail alongside broad strokes. However, my personal bugbear – what I call ‘the drama school beat’ – is here. Every speech paced perfectly to deliver a sucker punch, but every speech ends up sounding very similar because of the idea of perfect delivery being perfectly executed. It’s by no means unique to this production but we need differentiation between characters very particularly here to appreciate the significance of whatever unites them.
A tricky conceit of moving from 2016 to 1936 and the attempt to balance actual time travel, and self-realisation through dress-up, is confusingly split at times but the narrative thrust remains clear. In an ancient story the tragedy is a loss of life while in the modern story the tragedy is a loss of a purpose. This play has both and is testament to the eighteen months of dedication and care the writers have put into researching and understanding their subjects as well as reflecting on current political climates.
Rousing use of the Internationale (not the Billy Bragg edition) had older audience members mouthing along and bobbing their heads. It spoke to past unity with hopes of re-establishing it in the future. It’s a nice thought and hope peeps through in this group of four.
Photos courtesy of Jassy Earl.
549: Scots of the Civil War ran in the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow from 13th -17th February.