The Fifth Column - excerpt

101 @ Bodega, Wellington

04/11/2006 - 04/11/2006

Production Details

By Ernest Hemingway
Directed by Willem Wassenaar

A 30-minute excerpt (Act II: Scene 3) from a play by Ernest Hemingway, The Fifth Column.

with 2nd year students of Toi Whakaari: NZ Drama School

Natalie Medlock
Matt Whelan
Evania Vallyon
Ryan Richards
Byron Coll
Anya Tate Manning

Theatre ,

30 mins

The Riches of Poor Theatre

Review by Dean Parker 08th Nov 2006

Everyone knows, from their own experience, that you learn best by doing. That’s why it was so great to see Toi Whakaari: NZ Drama School instantly making a group of students available for a recent function in Wellington.

The function was a celebration of New Zealanders’ role in the Spanish Civil War. Over a hundred people had turned up at Turnbull House for the weekend of November 4-5 to hear speakers from Australia and New Zealand. On the Saturday night a concert was organised for the cellar of Bar Bodega in Ghuznee Street.

And the highlight of the concert was the group of students from the Drama School. The students performed a 30-minute excerpt (Act II: Scene 3) from a play by Ernest Hemingway, The Fifth Column.

The play is based on, and was written during, the period Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn reported from a Madrid hotel under siege during the civil war in 1937. It’s by no means a brilliant play. The posturing that can be hidden by the intensity of Hemingway’s prose is pretty much floodlit on stage.

Ensconced in a foreign correspondents’ watering home, under heavy bombardment, Philip, an American journalist in Madrid, wins the Vassar-educated lady correspondent Dorothy off a colleague. Philip is a dissolute, hard-drinking journo naturally attractive to women, who’s also secretly doing a bit of night work with the International Brigades against the fascist enemy. There’s some local colour (including a character called "Moorish Tart" alongside whose name I’ve written in my copy of the play, "similar to Almond Squares"). Dorothy, seems as daft as a brush, but finally, after quarrels and declarations of love, Philip nobly renounces her for the cause. (In fact Hemingway ended up marrying Martha Gellhorn, but was subsequently unable to come to terms with her being the better writer.)

The play was given a short and butchered Broadway production in 1940 and was later done for TV in 1960, a 90-minute feature on CBS directed by John Frankenheimer with Richard Burton and Sally Ann Hawes.

The stage setting requires two adjacent hotel rooms and the Toi Whakaari second year students brilliantly adapted to the somewhat confined spaces of the Bar Bodega cellar— which managed to look and feel uncannily like a much-bombed claustrophobic hotel. A Chorus figure, Colleen Davis, introduced the play in English and Spanish and sang The Internationale wonderfully.

Characters were led on—Dorothy, played by Natalie Medlock, Philip by Matt Whelan, Petra by Evania Vallyon, Max by Ryan Richards, the Manager by Bryon Coll and the Rifle Commander by Anya Tate Manning. All the players were top-notch and the direction by Willem Wassenaar faultless. The singing of Bandera Rosa moved the audience to join in, with fervour.

Here were the riches of Poor Theatre.

Perhaps the greatest triumph of the Nov 4 evening was the brilliant decision to have distant explosions throughout the play, great bangs and flashes that rocked the windows behind the players, as though they truly were under siege of fascist artillery.

It was a triumph for the Drama School and must surely lead to a queue of organizations wanting second-year students to light up a conference.

You can hear Ernest Hemingway reading a 5-minute MP3 excerpt from The Fifth Column at:


Eric Blair April 14th, 2008

Guardian April 11 2008 New York: The importance of staging Ernest Hemingway's only full-length play, The Fifth Column, has finally been unveiled in America You have to admire the courage and chutzpah with which Ernest Hemingway threw himself into the Spanish civil war. In the autumn of 1937, he spent several months holed up in the Hotel Florida in Madrid. The top floors of the hotel had been blown away, coming under bombardment some 30 times while he stayed in two rooms which he shared with his then lover and future third wife, war correspondent Martha Gellhorn. Hemingway spent some of that time writing a play which never fully saw the light of day and which only now, seven decades later, is being staged in the US. The Fifth Column is Hemingway's only full-length play (he also wrote a one-act drama on the theme of crucifixions that is apparently deeply forgettable) and as far as anyone knows it has only been put on stage in the Soviet Union in 1963 and once by Michael Powell in Scotland in the 1940s. Now it is being given royal treatment at New York's Mint Theater, a wonderfully intimate space tucked away in a nondescript office building near Times Square. The theatre, which has made something of a name for itself in discovering, or rediscovering, interesting lost works, does a fine job at bringing out the best from Hemingway's play, while minimising its fairly glaring weaknesses. The play explores the conflicting emotions of a young American called Philip Rawlings who is posing as a journalist but is really working as a counter-espionage officer for the Republican side as it seeks to repel Franco's advance on the capital. On the one hand, he is fully committed to the cause; on the other, he falls in love with a beautiful fellow American, Dorothy Bridges. It is perhaps no wonder that the writer didn't push overly hard to have his piece performed. At three hours, it is rambling and unfocused, its considerable energy in need of greater artistic control. The other problem with it is that although Hemingway may have been admirable in putting his life on the line in Spain, his portrayal of the interaction between Rawlings and Bridges is maddeningly one-sided. Rawlings is full of testosterone and duty; he drinks far too much, but he also cares too much about what is right. Bridges, by contrast, seems to spend most of her time lounging around in a silk nightgown fretting about whether her new fox fur coat hangs properly about her slender body. What makes this stereotypical disparity all the more difficult to swallow is that it is impossible not to see Hemingway himself in Rawlings and Gellhorn in Bridges. Sexy and sexually active Gellhorn certainly was, but a leggy blonde airhead? Absolutely not. To some extent, the Gellhorn subtext of the work makes up for the play's artistic shortcomings by adding historical curiosity. The acting too goes a long way towards making up the deficit. Kelly AuCoin is taut and intense as Rawlings, Heidi Armbruster manages to salvage some dignity from the limited character Hemingway gives her as Bridges, and the supporting cast is universally strong. What the evening leaves you with is a greater insight into Hemingway's huge strengths and large blind spots. And it also leaves you with a burning question: why on earth, after all that, did Gellhorn agree to tie the knot?

HELEN MICKELSON November 9th, 2006

Well, what a piss-off! Had I known about this I would have gone! This all sounds such a brilliant little exercise. And the fireworks felicitous. Congratulations to the organisers and to Toi Whakaari. And congratulations to for posting a record of it.

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