West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds
Opened 22 March, 2004

The more faithful you are to some subjects when dramatising them, the less successful the dramatisation will be. Yes, a number of topics are inherently dull, but it's just as true when the subject is frenzied and fragmentary. Art needs to distil such material in order to bring out its power and meaning.

That's what George Orwell did in his non-fiction books: his thoughts and his direct experiences shaped each other as he wrote. But in adapting his Homage To Catalonia, Pablo Ley and Allan Baker have opted instead to try to evoke the Spanish Civil War impressionistically, and the focus, insight and power get lost.

This is an Anglo-Franco-Catalan co-production, which in itself mimics the international character of the fight against fascism in Spain in the 1930s. Lines are spoken in English and Catalan, political folk songs are sung and rock thrashes bellowed, still and moving pictures and various texts are back-projected. Barricades are built with books, with bottles and even with typewriters. Accounts on and off microphone overlap and drown out each other. It's an enactment of the babel and the chaos on the Republican side, the semi-improvisation with what was to hand, all striving towards a common goal but not always able to co-ordinate their various efforts in that direction. Often things veer into absurdity: Jane Arnfield arrives at the Lenin Barracks like a militant Joyce Grenfell, declaring, "Hello, I've seen the advert and I'm here for the war."

In spirit, Josep Galindo and his multinational cast of ten bring out the nature of the struggle clearly. The trouble is that it makes for a play that's anything but clear, a multimedia agitprop bricolage that's full of sound and fury, signifying... well, you wish they'd get it together and tell you what exactly.

In the longer second half (and that's a mistake in itself) they do indeed get it together. This is the account of Orwell's time in Barcelona, when the government forces began to fragment, fighting among themselves as the Marxist POUM faction was spuriously scapegoated and the writer came under suspicion, escaping the country shortly before his intended arrest. But not a lot actually happens. Mingo Ràfols gets to be pudgily menacing, not unlike the shaven-headed spymaster in The Manchurian Candidate, but it's almost all atmosphere with no events to back it up.

This is the kind of production that students will take false heart from and try lower-grade versions of the same approach. But as the anti-fascist slogan had it, if you tolerate this, then your children will be next.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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