This is a luke warm and unenthusiastic review of Hemingway’s only play, but still, if you happen to be in London between now and April 15, perhaps worth a viewing.
Hardly mentioned and scarcely recognised among Ernest Hemingway’s renowned works, The Fifth Column is an overlooked piece that fits the aims of Two’s Company, which is to present forgotten theatre of the World Wars period. While some critics may argue that there is reason this play is typically disregarded as part of Hemingway’s literary canon, the show at Southwark Playhouse still results in a worthwhile evening.
It is 1937, Madrid; the brutal Spanish Civil War shows no sign of relenting, and impeding Nationalists besiege the city, its inhabitants subjected to widespread hunger and bombardments. Lodged at the Hotel Florida is a pair of American war correspondents who discover in each other a passionate, untimely love. However, in a play that deals heavily in themes of counter-espionage and faltering trust, characters fall prey to duplicity, and the antagonist must face the unmanageable choice between upholding his political convictions or his longing for the fulfilment of love.
Simplified lighting and sound effects are enough to create the tension and intensity of bombardment but not to the extent that they detract from the primary action of the play. Set designer Alex Marker for the most part successfully recreates the hotel as well as other locales in a relatively small space, except for instances in which Simon Darwen, as the lead, must poise himself on an armchair or a bed, and his towering stature dwarfs the stage’s proportions. A scene with the most physical, combatant action involving a Nazi cohort is awkwardly staged due to a lack of space for necessary movement. In addition to Alix Dunmore’s unfortunate wig, the underwhelming choice of costumes for the female roles is not reminiscent of a 1930s period piece, but rather, last season’s clearance rack.
The play is generally supported by a strong cast, even if accents falter a bit in the beginning (they eventually stabilise during the course of the play). Darwen’s portrayal of Phillip Rawlings, a counter-intelligence operative posing as a journalist, is rather aggravating at first, but Darwen’s feat is making an unsavoury character actually likeable. Although Dunmore is a pleasure to watch on stage as Dorothy Bridges (the rather dim-witted beloved), she perhaps misses the nuances of the potentially complex role and instead delivers a superficial character whose every line is meant at face value. The vapid romance between the two results in various scenes with rather uncomfortable dialogue, but this is as much Hemingway’s fault in composition as it is Darwen and Dunmore’s in execution.
Hemingway’s only full-length play pales in comparison to the pioneering style of his other prose works. The Fifth Column is very much a relic of a specific time and place, and, rather than attempting to valourise it as a “forgotten gem” it is probably best viewed as a literary genius’s ineffective excursion into a different genre.