Joining the struggle: Derek Anders and Eileen Nicholas in A Greater Tomorrow
The young Scots who fought in the Spanish Civil War are the subject of a new play by Scottish writer HECTOR MACMILLAN. But their heroism, he says, was rooted in political realism, not idealism. Words: Neil Cooper
History has a habit of telling only half the story. And where anything resembling a — whisper who dares — left-wing perspective threatens to come into play. it‘s often dismissed as propagandist pamphleteering. Take the Spanish Civil War of 1936—9. After the democratic election of a socialist government. General Franco‘s fascist coup galvanised young working-class idealists from all over the world to fight for a common goal in the International Brigades. Try telling that to today‘s smiley- suited opportunists with red roses in their buttonholes and they wouldn‘t have a clue.
To be fair. the war is something of a minefield of
complexity. with a raggle-taggle assortment of
communist and anarchist factions forming multiple armies and unable to agree on much. Yet. it was these very complications that appealed to playwright Hector MacMillan. whose ambitious attempt to interpret the events for the stage tours to Glasgow. Edinburgh and Aberdeen this month following its premiere at Dundee Rep.
‘lt’s a difficult subject to get to grips with.’ says MacMillan the day after the play’s first night. which was notable for the attendance of Labour MP Roy Hattersley. one-time Robin to Neil Kinnock‘s
Batman. ‘It was clearly a very important event for
working-class Scots at the time. Though people came from all over the world. there was a substantially
'lt would've been very easy to shout anti-Stalinist slogans in this play, but if you shove people into a corner, they’re going to fight back with anything they can.’
higher percentage of Scots and Irish than those from any other part of Britain. It clearly rang some very strong connection with them and their upbringing. So part of the purpose of writing it was. in fact. to celebrate the idealism and belief in a purpose. and the possibility of achieving it. The Brigaders don't actually like it being referred to as idealism. They say it‘s realism.‘
Likewise. MacMillan‘s play is no mere polemic. and though it weaves into the narrative some of the many songs and poems that grew out of the Spanish experience. it's given a very human face via the figure of lock. a veteran turned gentleman of the road. squaring up to the present-day authorities. The character was loosely based on a real-life veteran who. in an almost Orwellian re-write of history. all but vanished from the record books after coming into conﬂict with the leadership of the Communist Party
of Great Britain. which was then under the thumb of
the diktats of Stalinist Russia. ‘People like him were highly regarded at the time.‘ says MacMillan. ‘You wonder why they‘re never mentioned. so you have to redress that balance and try and show what happenedf
With the election just around the corner. and all the major parties indistinguishable from one another. the play can be seen as pointing up,the British Labour Party‘s non- interventionist stance — for example. in its failure to support the current dockers‘ strike in Liverpool. Does Niachillan believe that a left-wing leadership always ends up selling its supporters down the river‘.’
‘lt would‘ve been very easy to shout anti-Stalinist slogans in this play.‘ is the author’s measured response. ‘hut. in a sense. you can blame Stalinism on the capitalist Western democracies. because they set out to destroy the Russian Revolution from the moment it achieved anything. If you shove people into a corner. they‘re going to fight back with anything they can.‘
A Greater Tomorrow is at the King’s Theatre, Glasgow, Thurs 1—Sat 3 May, and the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, Wed 7-Sat 10 May.
preview THEATRE Stage Whispers
What’s in the spotlight this fortnight.
THE MEDIA EXCITEMENT surrounding the current 'Up For Review' programme at Battersea Arts Centre has been spectacular. The idea behind the scheme was to challenge four of London‘s most prominent theatre critics - Michael Billington, Nicholas De Jongh, Jeremy Kingston and James Christopher — to direct a play each, and have the results reviewed by some of the most prominent theatre directors — among them the RSC’s artistic director Adrian Noble, Sir Peter Hall and former Traverse director Max Stafford-Clark. The object was to bridge — in a playful and, one hopes, good—natured way — that turbulent gulf of resentment that lies between practitioners and commentators in the field. Naturally, theatre critics all over the country were hooked (which may account for the extensive newspaper coverage), though The Observer’s Michael Coveney dismissed the whole thing as 'gimmicky’. Now that the reviews are out (let’s be tactful and call them mixed) - what has been learned? That most theatre critics don’t make very good directors; that most theatre directors don't make very good critics — no surprises there. But each faction seems to have gained an understanding of the difficulties faced by the other. Why, even the dread De Jongh conceded that he would do well to dispense the milk of human kindness more freely . ..
NO BLACKING UP for The Bohemians, Edinburgh's 87-year-old amateur operatic company, whose production of Showboat at the King's Theatre this fortnight features black performers in all the
African-American roles. Racially 5 sensitive City of Edinburgh Council
banned the company from appearing onstage in Al Jolson-style make-up; but its Arts Outreach team put the company in contact with the Africa Centre (Scotland) and Afridonia, the Edinburgh-based black dance company. Now the key roles of Joe (who sings ’Ol' Man River') and Queenie have been cast with authentic ethnicity (John Kaseira and Flo Menzies respectively), as have the chorus and dance troupe. As the song title says, it’s 'Only Make Believe’, but it ain't only make-up.
Oi! Jolson! NOOOO!
18 W i. May 1997 rucusr 55