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The Fifth Column

Ernest Hemingway
Two's Company and Karl Sydow, in association with Master Media
Southwark Playhouse (The Large)

Simon Darwen as Philip Rawlings and Alix Dunmore as Dorothy Bridges Credit: Phil Gammon
Simon Darwen as Philip and Stephen Ventura as the Manager of Hotel Florida Credit: Phil Gammon
Michael Shelford as Antonio (Head of Counter Espionage), Simon Darwen as Philip and Michael Edwards as Max Credit: Phil Gammon
Sasha Frost as Anita and Simon Darwen as Philip Credit: Phil Gammon

Nobel Prize-winning writer Ernest Hemingway wrote The Fifth Column in 1937 in Madrid, while the city was being bombarded by Franco’s Fascist forces, two years before he began his great Civil War novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. It is his only full-length play.

It was published in an anthology of 49 short stories in 1938 and produced on Broadway by Theatre Guild in 1940 but in a version heavily rewritten by screenwriter Benjamin Glazer that Hemingway was not happy with. This, the first London production, marks 80 years since the start of the Spanish Civil War and uses the original script, though cut to bring it down to 2½ hours (including interval).

It is mainly set in adjoining rooms of the Hotel Florida, the place where Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn were holed up when he wrote it, less than a mile from the fascist front line and in the field of fire of their artillery, all realistically presented in an abstracted war zone by Alex Marker’s set. Here glamorous journalist Dorothy Bridges is supposed to be working on a piece for Cosmopolitan when she falls for Philip Rawlings who moves in next door.

There are sudden killings, a daring raid on an enemy headquarters and a nightly bombardment that Dominic Bilkey’s sound and Neill Brinkworth’s lighting makes explode around the theatre. The war isn’t really the subject but the people.

Rawlings describes himself as “a second-rate cop pretending to be a third-rate journalist”. Though Bridges doesn’t know it, he’s working with the Republican side's counter-espionage outfit. It is the relationship between these two that Hemingway hones in on.

The context of what is going on is often confusing. Hemingway doesn’t explain the complexities of the political situation (though the programme is helpful) nor explore Rawlings’s motivation. Multiple accents, including Rawlings's fast-speaking American, aren’t always comprehensible. In the first act especially, this makes things muddled.

Both delivery and plotting become clearer after the interval with Alix Dunmore and Simon Darwen passionately playing Dorothy and Phillip’s volatile relationship, his “I love you” at night taken back in the morning. This romance is never really believable and because his political commitment is never spelled out the theme strand that sets love against duty is weakened.

Tricia Thorns’s direction adds impetus and brings out humour to contrast with the dark, smoke-wreathed dangers. Stephen Ventura turns a condescendingly written, cliché Spaniard into a character all politeness to the guests whose cache of canned food can supply food for his family.

Thorns makes Hemingway’s confusions still watchable and allows his more sharply-written duologues to shine. Sasha Frost is especially clear-cut as Moorish tart Aisha, with whom Rawlings is also involved, Michael Edwards delivers a strong characterisation as Max, Philip’s daring Brigade colleague (a reminder that, though Hitler gave support to Franco, many ordinary Germans fought for the republicans). Catherine Cusack’s alert hotel maid Petra is watchable even when just carrying out chores.

As attention switches from one room to the other or out to other locations, we seem to be being offered a story in context but Hemingway doesn’t properly explore Rawlings's dilemma. In a setting so dramatic, we are still left on the outside. It is almost as though, wanting to draw on immediate experience, he never found his real subject and starts on too many.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton