The Fifth Column** (Southwark Playhouse)

Posted: March 30, 2016 in Theatre


Last year Two’s Company made a big impact at Southwark Playhouse by rediscovering a near-forgotten play, The Cutting of the Cloth, and lavishing it with loving care and attention to detail. The company now comes up with another obscure work – an Ernest Hemingway play (yes a play by him and not an adaptation of a novel) from 1938 and they bring to it exactly the same qualities. The problem is that the play does not deserve them. Why? Well, for starters, the scenes are constructed poorly, key characters are under-developed, minor characters flit in and out making no impression, much of the dialogue feels stilted and little sense of direction or purpose surfaces until the very last scene when it is much too late. There are compensations in Tricia Thorns’ production, chief among them being a terrific performance by Simon Darwen as Philip Rawlings, the American cop embroiled in counter-espionage in Madrid at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. He is laconic and then impassioned, cynical then romantic, coming from the same mould as Humphrey Bogart. Philip is torn between the tempestuous local girl, described as “a Moorish tart”, Anita (Catherine Cusack) and the “useless” American journalist, a platinum blonde femme fatale, Dorothy (Alix Dunmore). Both these actors deserve a great deal more to get their teeth into than Hemingway gives them. Alex Marker’s set is also impressive, primarily adjoining rooms in the seedy H_tel Florida, but accommodating a few short scenes outside too. However, the set reminds us of the play’s most fundamental flaw – that it feels trapped inside a confined space, its story crying out to be told without such limitations as would have been possible in Hemingway’s favoured medium, the novel, or in a film. Philip’s choice is between life as an adventurer fighting for worthy causes, as represented by Anita, or a hedonistic life among the priviledged, as represented by Dorothy.  He veers one way during daytime and the other at night. Eventually, through Philip, Hemingway turns the play into a call to arms for America to jump off the fence and join Russian communists in fighting fascism. Given the benefit of hindsight that 80 years of history affords, this is a notion that seems rather curious, but curiosity value is just about the best thing that Hemingway’s museum piece has to offer.

Performance Date: 29 March 2016

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