Review by Melinda Haunton
549 is an interesting project, based in archive testimony and bringing to life the story of the four men from Prestonpans who volunteered in the International Brigades, to fight for Republican Spain in 1936. Making Scottish involvement in the Spanish Civil War live again may seem a tall order for a modern UK audience, particularly on a set composed mainly of two pub tables and some chairs. But 549 pulls it off, through a mixture of timeslip magic, engaging music and pleasingly overt stagecraft. I’m glad they brought it to London for a couple of nights, after a successful tour round Scotland.
We meet four modern lads, bored in a pub, talking awkwardly about politics and the lack of a purpose in their lives. We are just starting to get bored along with them, when a crack of magic brings Old George Watters (Michael Mackenzie) to the stage. A ghost, or a spirit, or a harbinger? Don’t know, no one cares – but he’s definitely left a suitcase, and he’s definitely been dead since 1980. And that’s the point where I started to get into the play. It takes brass neck to introduce such a magical catalyst and spend no time at all on explanations. But that’s very much the spirit of 549, which knows both when to show its working, and how to focus on the important stuff. (Only slightly further into the piece, during a scene change, one of the cast protests, “We’ve only just found out who the characters are!” Too true, of so many productions.)
The modern scenes, particularly the introduction, are on the clunky side, with a desperate attempt to pitch the 2017 general election as a moment of palpable change. (I suppose I’m at least grateful the word ‘referendum’ never appears.) But as soon as the action shifts to the past, the production catches and keeps attention. Our bored modern lads become their authentic 1936 precursors, each keeping some link with their modern counterpart. The fate of some of the four International Brigaders is pitiable enough, their naivety heartbreaking at times. But it’s a stronger project for the authenticity brought by the archive sources, and for the persistent thread of backchat from Jimmy Kempton, the cynical, mercenary member of the crew, who is only in the war for the money, and doesn’t like what he finds.
The company work well collectively, with Nicholas Ralph eye-catching as Jimmy (bastards always get the best lines), and Robbie Gordon (co-writer as well as lead) doing an honest, earnest turn as Young George Watters, the beating heart of Prestonpans’ Brigaders. His idealism is what drives the story, and the fate of his comrades. But I found my eye constantly returning to Rebekah Lumsden, playing a host of small roles (mother, wife, fascist guard, child warrior, border patrol, Communist politician), and acting as narrator when the play decides to show its bones. She covers the lot with conviction and character – and carries much of the emotional edge.
549 certainly succeeds as storytelling, as entertainment, and as a memorial to the four fighting men. It is a little less convincing in striving for modern relevance and a message. Stirring passages of solidarity and community singing (I’ve not heard the Internationale belted out like that for a while), and inspiration from George’s ideals, are undercut by the grim betrayal of the Brigades’ lack of training and equipment, which leads to slaughter. And that’s even before Jimmy points out that not everyone’s there fighting for an ideal, just a wage. That’s the trouble with basing stories on reality. Some contrary sod has to spoil the mood.
549: Soldiers of the Spanish Civil War played at the New Diorama 22-23 June 2019, following a Scottish tour.