Homage to Catalonia

George Orwell (adapted by Pablo Ley and Allan Barker)
West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
(2004)

There has been a resurgence of political theatre in the past few years - The Colour of Justice and The Permanent Way being two of the best-known examples. Northern Stage's inspired adaptation of Orwell's Animal Farm is still touring eleven years after its premiere, and bearing in mind this company's involvement in Homage to Catalonia I was expecting to see something special. Alas, I was to be disappointed - this is the sort of production that not only gives political theatre a bad name, it makes you wonder if international co-operation is necessarily a Good Thing.

Homage to Catalonia is an ambitious co-production between the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Northern Stage, Teatre Romea, Forum Barcelona 2004 and MC93 Bobigny (which immediately calls to mind the old adage about too many cooks). Directed by Josep Galindo and featuring a cast of ten British and Spanish actors, much of the dialogue is in Catalan and the stage is dominated by a huge screen on which newsreel footage of the Spanish Civil War is projected. The fact that these images are more memorable than anything that happens on stage speaks volumes about the sheer pointlessness of adapting such a book for the theatre; there is no point in criticizing a play for its episodic nature when there is really no other way to do it. Ley and Baker extract small chunks of Orwell's text and distribute them, apparently at random, among the ill-defined characters. This could be a recipe for boredom (Homage to Catatonia?) but wait - director Galindo is prepared for this eventuality!

Every time the audience's attention is in danger of flagging we are treated to the sight of the desperately hard-working cast filling the stage with neatly arranged clothes, blankets, books and cans. This device quickly outwears its welcome, so we are also bullied into some toe-curling audience participation (a big mistake in England, particularly at a sparsely attended matinee - at this point I was on the verge of rooting for General Franco). In need of comic relief? How about a bizarre scene in which a debby English volunteer makes a Grenfallesque phone call to the enemy? Still struggling a stay awake? A weirdly anachronistic punk-rock anthem, played at brain-numbing volume while the cast demolishes the set, will not only perk you up but is loud enough to disturb "the deep, deep sleep of England, from which I sometimes fear that we shall never wake till we are jerked out of it by the roar of bombs."

Suffice to say that the only non-newsreel image I carried away from this mess was the scene in which Orwell, shot through the neck by a sniper, compares the experience to that of being hit by lightning. I would compare the experience of sitting through Homage to Catalonia to that of being hit very hard with a rolled-up newspaper for several hours - whilst trying to read Homage to Catalonia.

At the West Yorkshire Playhouse until 3rd April, then touring to Paris, Newcastle and Barcelona

Reviewer: J. D. Atkinson