If the resurgence of nationalism in Europe is largely associated with right-wing politics, Scotland is one of the few places I’ve lived where nationalism has strong supporters on both sides of the political spectrum. While contemporary Scottish nationalism has largely emerged from the social-democratic independence movement and broadly opposes the racist, xenophobic rhetoric present in Italy and Germany, it can be disconcerting to see strong support for nationalism among Scotland’s creative industries—not typically natural bedfellows.
In Scottish popular theatre, there’s a healthy tradition of the highly topical and locally situated, expressed through place and language as much as deeds and characters. To a certain extent it’s giving the people what they want and often, as in the case of last year’s The Belle’s Stratagem—Tony Cownie’s adaptation of Hannah Cowley’s 18th-century romantic comedy which transposed the action from Georgian London to Georgian Edinburgh—it results in lighthearted entertainment. But taken collectively, it can sometimes feel like pandering to Scottish nationalism. And here I’m agreement with Turkish writer Elif Shafak, who, in an interview with Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon at the 2017 Edinburgh International Book Festival, doubted that nationalism, even the Scottish variety, could ‘ever be a benevolent thing’.
In this context, one can draw interesting comparisons between 549: Scots of the Spanish Civil War — about four miners from Prestonpans who left East Lothian in 1936 to fight in the anti-fascist International Brigades in the Spanish Civil War — and last year’s compelling documentary film Nae Pasaran, about a group of Rolls-Royce factory workers in East Kilbride who refused to work on Chilean Air Force parts in the 1970s in protest against the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile.
Although both examples explore fascinating, if previously largely forgotten, twentieth-century social and political histories of the Scottish working classes, Nae Pasaran is to a certain extent constrained by its documentary film format and the fact that many of its protagonists are still alive. On the other hand, although based on the true events of the four men from Prestonpans, 549: Scots of the Spanish Civil War, has taken a freer approach in fictionalising its narrative and characters.
If Nae Pasaran is fulsome in its praise for the actions taken by the Rolls-Royce factory workers, Jack Nurse and Robbie Gordon, writers of 549: Scots of the Spanish Civil War have been more circumspect in ensuring that their protagonists haven’t been reduced to one-dimensional heroic stereotypes.
In 549: Scots of the Spanish Civil War, passionate anti-fascist campaigner George Watters (based on the real George Watters, played by Robbie Gordon) is compelled by his moral convictions. His friends Jimmy (Nicholas Ralph), Bill (Cristian Ortega) and Jock (Josh Whitelaw), however, are motivated by more worldly concerns: making money, meeting women, getting the hell out of Prestonpans. And even George, driven though he is by a strong moral sense of wrong and right, can’t help but withhold certain truths from his friends (namely, that war isn’t all wine, women and glorious adventure) in his attempts to persuade them to join him in Spain.
After opening last year in Prestonpans Town Hall and the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow, the production returns this year to Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre. The pub setting is well-suited to the cosy confines of Traverse 2, the theatre’s smaller, black-box space. Taking our seats as four young men on stage drink and banter in the pub, their stories, as well as those of the four historical friends who joined to fight against Franco in Spanish Civil War, are told through time-travelling flashback scenes in conjunction with skilful storytelling (much of which is spun by Rebekah Lumsden’s excellent Ellen) and movement—a particularly memorable battlefield sequence has pool cues stand in for bayoneted rifles.
While 549: Scots of the Spanish Civil War isn’t a perfect piece of political theatre by any means, it does open up a number of interesting questions, particularly in relation to broader trends in telling stories—in theatre and other cultural forms—tinged with Scottish nationalism and a tendency to heroise historic figures almost to the point of caricature. In so doing, it argues quite convincingly, if perhaps inadvertently, for the importance of the freedom to fictionalise in telling historic stories. If handled with deftness and care, the use of fiction in staging history can allow a freer hand in drawing out the grey tones, the moral complexities and ambiguities of characters and situations in a way that accurate, documentary-style retellings are often unable to avoid.
549: Scots of the Spanish Civil War tours through Scotland and to London throughout June. More info here.