Pros: The solid supporting cast have impeccable comic timing and the set is superbly designed.
Cons: A combination of clumsy plotting and under-development of central characters means the human story doesn’t illuminate the bigger picture as it should.
A night at Southwark Playhouse is always a bit of a gamble. Whilst a comfy seat, clear view and great value bar snacks are always guaranteed, the productions themselves are anything but predictable. Which, of course, makes things all the more exciting. The startling notion of a 79-year-old Ernest Hemingway play joining the theatre’s roster of cutting-edge curiosities, then, had my own curiosity well and truly piqued. The Fifth Column is Ernest Hemingway’s semi-autobiographical account of journalistic bed-hopping amidst the shells of the Spanish Civil War. It is the Nobel Prize-winning novelist’s only play, and this is its first European revival since 1944. Are seven decades of neglect justified?
Greeted by grinning guitarists, we are immersed into the world of wartime Madrid as we make our way to our seats. The set recreates the ravaged Hotel Florida and is dominated by a cutaway recreation of two adjacent rooms. It is a triumph of attention to detail, right down to the sandbags under the stage struts. Hotel Florida, the play’s literal and figurative epicentre, played host to Hemingway and fellow correspondents during the late 1930s. The Fifth Column was written in late 1937, during which time the hotel was struck by more than thirty high explosive shells. The play represents a loose reworking of Hemingway’s autobiographical experiences into a thriller-come-dysfunctional-love-story. Philip, a counter-intelligence operative masquerading as a reporter, is typically seen to represent the “Hemingway” figure. The character of female correspondent Dorothy, meanwhile, is presumably inspired by Martha Gellhorn, Hemingway’s future (third) wife.
Two’s Company is known for its rediscovery of plays about, or written during, the First World War and interwar periods, using personal stories to flag up take-home messages for a modern audience. Although this play should be a prime candidate for such treatment, the personal story and bigger picture don’t quite gel. The action which occurs outside the walls of the Florida feels disjointed and something of an afterthought. This makes it even more critical that we care what happens to Philip and Dorothy on a personal level – and, unfortunately, I’m not sure we do. They draw us in with an accurate illustration of the maddening, all-encompassing, up-all-night urgency of the embryonic relationship. However, they also skim over opportunity after opportunity to flesh out their characters by engaging with the script’s subtext. Dorothy’s unfortunate ‘Girls World’ wig serves only to reinforce an infuriatingly superficial ‘dumb blonde’ level characterisation. Somehow, whilst shells explode all around us, we’re never desperately concerned about the possible results.
If we’re not necessarily on the edges of our seats, though, we are more or less content to sit back and enjoy. The supporting cast buoys the production with a raft of unerringly competent, committed and well-characterised performances. Catherine Cusack, in particular, demonstrates an impeccable nous for comedy in her turn as beleaguered hotel maid Petra. The stakes may not feel as high as they should, but approached as a sort of early stage version of Fawlty Towers, it ain’t half bad.
Author: Ernest Hemingway
Director: Tricia Thorns
Producer: Graham Cowley
Box Office: 020 7407 0234
Booking Link: http://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/show/the-fifth-column/
Booking Until: 16 April 2016