The Fifth Column
By Ernest Hemingway
Southwark Playhouse to April 16
77-85 Newington Causeway
London SE1 6BD
7.30pm, Sat mat 3.00pm
Runs: 2hrs 20mins incl internal.
TICKETS: Box Office: 020 7407 0234
Review: by Carole Woddis of performance seen Mar 30, 2016:
Interesting choice, but the play’s its own worst enemy
Over the past dozen years or so, Tricia Thorns and Two’s Company have unearthed some terrific forgotten plays, notably about WWI and the role of women in society. Alas the London premiere, almost eighty years on, of Ernest Hemingway’s only play, The Fifth Column is unlikely to be marked amongst them though Thorns typically marshals her forces at Southwark Playhouse with flair and attention to detail.
If The Fifth Column fails to exert the same kind of grip on theatre audiences as readers of Hemingway’s associative Spanish Civil War novel (For Whom the Bell Tolls), the fault lies in a play that harbours too much personal colour at the expense of focus.
Based on its author’s own experiences in 1937 in Madrid during the bombardment by Nationalist rebels – and their `fifth column’ sympathisers in Madrid – against the Republicans, it often feels like a thinly disguised autobiography of Hemingway himself with its central action centred on an American war correspondent (as was Hemingway at the time), dallying in schizoid fashion with a female war correspondent (any relation here between Hemingway’s unlikely shallow blonde, Dorothy Bridges and his real life `amour’, Martha Gellhorn is purely accidental).
Passing himself off as a useless alcoholic playboy but clandestinely fighting for the Republicans, Hemingway’s Philip Rawlings is stereotypically macho and hard-drinking with a laconic cynicism hiding his true idealism beneath the garrulous womaniser.
It’s a mighty, thankless and wordy task for Simon Darwen, a Thorns’ regular, who manages to endow Rawlings with dynamic charm whilst also laying bare the character’s sexual and emotional selfishness.
Maybe that is Hemingway’s real achievement – to show the muck and egotism amongst the heroism. For in amongst the scurry of scenes in hotel bedrooms, bars, interrogation cells and city batteries, there’s precious little sense of the era’s political reality.
Paradoxically, the two most convincing characters are peripheral – Michael Edwards’s German International Brigader, Max and Sasha Frost’s Anita, a former Rawlings girlfriend, described unflatteringly as `a Moorish Tart’!
In short, whilst The Fifth Column is no doubt true to the spirit of those disorganised, cruel and chaotic times, it’s less than flattering to its author as playwright.
The Fifth Column
By Ernest Hemingway
Guitarist: Ruben de Guillen
Hotel Florida guests:
Dorothy Bridges, war correspondent, Room 109: Alix Dunmore
Robert Preston, war correspondent, Room 110: Michael Shelford
Philip Rawlings, Room 113: Simon Darwen
Staff of hotel:
Manager, Hotel Florida: Stephen Ventura
Hotel Electrician: Joshua Jacob
Petral, hotel Maid: Catherine Cusack
Hotel Maid: Elizabeth Jane Cassidy
Anita, a Moorish Tart: Sasha Frost
Comrade, Abraham Lincoln Battalion
guarding Room 107: James El-Sharawy
Comrade Wilkinson, Abraham Lincoln Battalion: Elliot Brett
Max, Thaelmann Battalion: Michael Edwards
Republican Police and Security:
Antonio, Head of Counter-Espionage: Michael Shelford
Assault Guard: Harvey Steven Meneses
Waiter: Joshua Jacob
Sentry: Elliot Brett
German General: Carl Gilbey-McKenzie
General’s Aide: James El-Sharawy
Civilian: Joshua Jacob
Signaller: Harvey Steven Meneses
Director: Tricia Thorns
Set Designer: Alex Marker
Costume Designer: Emily Stuart
Lighting Designer: Neill Brinkworth
Sound Designer: Dominic Bilkey
Fight Director: Toby Spearpoint
Producer: Graham Cowley
Presented by Two’s Company, Karl Sydow in association with Master Media
First perf of London premiere of The Fifth Column, March 24, 2016