549: Scots of The Spanish Civil War @ Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
549: Scots of The Spanish Civil War is a beautifully moving tale of friendship, bravery and sacrifice
549: Scots of the Spanish Civil War has an engaging set-up. Four friends – like woke versions of Trainspotting's Begbie, Renton, Sick Boy and Spud – are sitting in a pub in Prestonpans, chatting about politics. They are interrupted by an old man, George Watters (Michael Mackenzie), who tells the story of how he, along with 548 other Scots, served in the Spanish Civil War on the side of the republicans. The four friends, with the help of fiery barmaid Ellen (Rebekah Lumsden), recreate George’s story through drama, song and dance.
Robbie Gordon – who co-wrote the play along with director Jack Nurse – plays the young George, a committed communist who convinces three of his pals to join him in defeating the fascists. All of the characters have their own identity: Bill Dickson (Cristian Ortega) is young and naïve, whilst Jimmy Kempton (Nicholas Ralph) is a cynic. The first half of the play is full of amusing jokes and banter, but 549 does not shy away from the darker side of war, either. The bloodlust of Jock Gilmour (Josh Whitelaw) horrifies George and even makes him doubt the cause.
The audience is transported back to the 1930s, when a battle was raging between communists and fascists for Europe’s soul – and more than just milkshakes were being thrown. The tragedy of the Spanish Civil War, of course, is that the fascists ultimately won. The play’s message is one of hope, however, not pessimism. It encourages all of us to fight for what we believe in, even if that isn’t easy. The cast utilises a minimalist set – a few barstools and tables - to great effect, with snooker cues standing in for guns. The songs and dances are enjoyable but nothing special; the real power of this play is in the wonderful acting of its central characters, who all deliver impassioned performances.
549 is a beautifully moving tale of friendship, bravery and sacrifice. It recounts a true story that deserves to be heard, not just because its an important and oft forgotten part of history, but because it's a fascinating and enjoyable tale to boot. Wonder Fools are touring their play across Scotland this month, and it even comes with an interactive exhibition about other men and women who served in the International Brigade. It is truly not to be missed.
549: Scots of the Spanish Civil War, touring until 23 June