Reviews London TheatreReviewsWest End & Central Published 1 April 2016

Review: The Fifth Column at Southwark Playhouse

Southwark Playhouse ⋄ 24th March – 16th April 2016

Dave Fargnoli reviews Hemingway’s “raw, sometimes rambling cocktail of spy thriller, romance, and self-insert fiction.”

Dave Fargnoli
The Fifth Column at Southwark Playhouse. Photo: Alastair Muir.

The Fifth Column at Southwark Playhouse. Photo: Alastair Muir.

As a war correspondent in 1930s Madrid, Ernest Hemingway found himself holed up in a crummy hotel as Nationalist forces descended on the city, aided from within by the so-called ‘fifth column’ of fascist sympathisers. Enduring constant shelling and almost certainly continual drinking, he found time to write his only play – a raw, sometimes rambling cocktail of spy thriller, romance, and self-insert fiction.

Philip is an American counterespionage agent posing as a playboy lowlife by day, serving as a commissar of the international brigades by night. Played by a grizzled and charismatic Simon Darwen, he juggles his responsibility to the cause with a burgeoning love affair with Dorothy, the louche journalist in the next room.

Though Alix Dunmore plays her with effervescent energy, there’s no escaping the anaemic thinness of the role. A simpering, spoilt socialite-cum-war correspondent, Dorothy is a character with no agency and who generates precious little sympathy, though you don’t have to strain to see her frivolity as a broad critique of apolitical capitalism. At one point, she cheerfully exploits the wartime exchange rate to buy a fur coat. Meanwhile, the hotel manager (Stephen Ventura) begs for her leftovers with diffident dignity – or at least as much dignity as a man can muster while combining the looks of Lenin with the manner of Manuel from Fawlty Towers. It’s probably best not to dwell on Anita, either – described bluntly as ‘a Moorish Tart’ – except to say that she is given a very shrewd, spiky portrayal by Sasha Frost.

In 2016, we should surely be searching for ways to undercut such a slurry of outdated notions, but this production chooses to focus on the story and not the subtext – and is the poorer for it. The play’s dubious assumptions clang even more resoundingly against the otherwise quite remarkable writing. For all its flaws, the script is full of detail, insight, and some stinging black humour. As he refuses to subject a prisoner to ‘enhanced interrogation,’ Philip quips ‘I want information, not a confession.’

Alex Marker’s expansive set allows for scenes to develop simultaneously in adjoining suites, while the stage is framed with piled sandbags and broken masonry. When the hotel’s intermittent electricity gives out, Neill Brinkworth’s lighting floods the space with a rich mingling of red and smoky blue.

Director Tricia Thorn navigates the play’s uneven terrain admirably, keeping every scene tightly focused. Though it might not be clear by the interval where all this is going, the mood is taut and the tension is steadily simmering. Things are given a real lift with the late introduction of Michael Edward’s scarred, scene-stealing infiltration expert Max, a superb operative who nonetheless strives for kindness wherever possible. His gentle compassion stands in sharp contrast to the ruthless practicalities of war, and his scenes scout the exquisitely fine line between fighting the good fight and backsliding into barbarism.

In the world of the play, as in life, good intentions don’t count for much. Whatever criticisms Hemmingway might deserve, there’s some keen observation on display here. His characters are interlopers in this environment, working for an ideal they don’t fully understand even as they kid themselves they’re only doing their duty. ‘We’re in for fifty years of undeclared wars,’ Philip says, painfully predicting the next few decades of well-meaning American interventionism.

Stylish and entertaining, the production is a fine evocation of a fascinating period. The plays’ real achievement, conscious or not, is in foregrounding the complicated intersections of the political and the personal which underpin any conflict.

The Fifth Column runs until 16th April 2016. Click here for tickets. 


Dave Fargnoli is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

Review: The Fifth Column at Southwark Playhouse Show Info

Directed by Tricia Thorns

Written by Ernest Hemingway

Cast includes Alix Dunmore, Simon Darwen, Stephen Ventura, Catherine Cusack, Sasha Frost, Michael Edwards, Michael Shelford



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