If those three words grab your attention like they do mine, I recommend going to see “The Fifth Column” by Ernest Hemingway, which is playing at the Southwark Playhouse until 16 April.
I’ve read a bit of Hemingway, I know something about the Spanish civil war, and I’ve seen a “war play” at the Southwark before, so I had an idea what to expect and I was not disappointed. The production was good: there relatively few hiccups for the first night of previews, barring the odd accent it was well-acted, and the staging, scenery and costumes were all fantastic. I really enjoyed it.
As for the play itself, “The Fifth Column” is a largely forgotten Hemingway work (this is the second time it’s been produced) and perhaps not without reason… It was a fairly simplistic and predicable story about two American journalists in Madrid while the city is bombarded by Franco’s forces. Their love affair is passionate but (SPOILER ALERT) short-lived as Rawlings decides his attachment to Bridges is interfering with his special-agenting work.
Two things bothered me as I watched the performance. While there’s a lot to admire in Dorothy Bridges’ character (her bravery, her charm and wit, her ironic self-depreciation) it’s difficult to feel sympathetic towards someone hoarding tins of caviar smuggled through the embassy pouch while the comrades in the Florida hotel go hungry, buying furs with black market currency, and harping on Rawlings to do something brave and noble while he is doing precisely that on the other side of the thin partition of the hotel room wall. I kept waiting for the twist: for one of the seemingly trustworthy characters to turn out for the other side (for all that it’s the play’s title, the fifth column was nearly absent from the text), or maybe for Bridges to turn out to be a secret agent herself, playing Rawlings all along with the “dumb blonde” routine. I waited in vain. As much as I liked both characters, their romance seemed to spring out of nothing, so its inevitable end lacked an emotional punch.
But one doesn’t read (or in this case, watch) Hemingway for portrayals of healthy relationships, Strong Female Characters, or even intriguing twists. The dialogue was snappy, the idealism of the characters impeccable, and the hopeful desolation caused by the travails of war comes across brilliantly.