Southwark Playhouse, London (***)
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 is at the Southwark Playhouse to April 16, 2016
Review first published in Reviewsgate, April 2016