Fifth Column

Reviewer's Rating

This is not an easy drama to like. Ernest Hemingway was born in 1899 and this is his only play. It is loosely autobiographical – it tells the story of Philip Rawlings, a ‘playboy’ journalist working in Madrid during the siege of the city during the Spanish Civil War. Despite the roué image, he is working to help the republican government police to root out the “fifth column” that Franco claims he has working for the fascist cause inside the city. Rawlings is also irresistible to women and manages to seduce Dorothy Bridges, a female war correspondent, also sheltering in the shell-damaged Florida Hotel.
Apart from the all too complimentary portrayal of Rawling’s bravery and devotion to the republican cause, the play paints him as the man all the women want – apart from a very wise hotel maid who warns Dorothy Bridges against him, but too late. The play begins as Bridges manoeuvres her former lover Robert Preston out of the way – and we quickly learn that Rawlings has roughed Preston up and persuaded the hotel management to evict Preston from his room and allocate it to him for the convenience of access to Bridges’ bed. The portrayal of Bridges, who some suggest was based on Martha Gellhorn to whom Hemingway was briefly married, is sexist in the extreme – she is shown as an empty airhead. When the hotel electrician is killed by a fascist sniper her only concern is to know who will be there to mend the bell by which she summons room service. She also spends a small fortune on a fox fur coat and has a tantrum when Rawlings points out the extravagance. It is worth remembering that Gellhorn was, in real life, a considerable journalist in her own right.
The evening is saved by a series of fine performances. Simon Darwen in the central role of Rawlings is superb. His transitions from playboy to policeman and back are convincing despite Hemingway’s lines – and he portrays the conflict between his night-time hankering for a life of ease and his daytime commitment to the republican cause with real pathos. Alix Dunmore in the thankless role of Dorothy Bridges makes the best of it and hints at a steelier persona under the satin and fur. Sasha Frost puts in a storming turn as Anita, labelled by Hemingway a “Moorish tart”.
The simple set – in the curtain-less large studio at the Southwark Playhouse – is, for most of the play, the two hotel bedrooms inhabited by Rawlings and Bridges but, with some clever sound and lighting effects, we also get the office of the head of republican counter-espionage, a role played with an impassive but sinister exterior by the excellent Michael Shelford, and a forward observation post of the Nationalist forces. Tricia Thorns’ direction keeps the balance between the soul-searching and the military action just right but cannot do anything to mask the misogynistic nature of Hemingway’s drama.
This is a play that Southwark playhouse should be congratulated for staging – as Hemingway’s only drama, it is certainly worth a production. And despite the shortcomings of the text, the direction and the performances make this a gripping evening.