Wonder Fools in association with the Brunton and Citizens Theatre presents
549: Scots of the Spanish Civil War
With music from VanIves
- In villages, towns and cities across Scotland, 549lives are gradually intertwining. People of contrasting backgrounds, ideologies and religions. Spurred on by their burning passion for equality and freedom, they believed in “making the world a safe place to live in if not for ourselves, well then for the sake of the future generation… to help to change the old system to a new…”.
They are the 549 Scots who would form the Scottish ranks of the Spanish Civil War’s anti-fascist International Brigade. Created by Robbie Gordon and Jack Nurse – founders of Wonder Fools and writers of 549 – Robbie stumbled across the history of the 549 when his grandfather told him the story of four of his friends from Prestonpans who fought in the Spanish Civil War.
Wonder Fool’s 549: Scots of the Spanish Civil War follows four miners from the streets of Prestonpans to the valleys of Spain. George Watters, Bill Dickson, Jock Gilmour and Jimmy Kempton form part of a group that gave up everything they knew: for a land they did not know; for a people they had never met; and for a cause they believed was right.
Developed over an 18 month research period; drawing on personal testimony, speaking to family members and hunting down long lost relatives, 549 was first performed in Prestonpans Town Hall in 2018, with family members of all four men present in the audience.
This year, 549 tours Scotland, reliving this history in town halls, community centres and theatres across the country. Sharing the stories of these men and women who fought and died so that we could see a better tomorrow.
COMRADES OF THE INTERNATIONAL BRIGADE:
YOU CAN GO PROUDLY. YOU ARE HISTORY. YOU ARE LEGEND.
First performed in 2018 to sell-out houses in Glasgow and Prestonpans, Wonder Fools are back for a comprehensive tour of Scotland Summer 2019.
21st – 25th May – Prestonpans Town Hall, Prestonpans
29th – 30th May – Lyth Arts Centre, Sortat, Wick
1st June – Eden Court, Inverness
6th – 8th June – Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
11th June – St Luke’s, Trongate, Glasgow
12th June – Platform, Easterhouse, Glasgow
14th – 15th June – Dundee Rep, Dundee
16th June – Birnam Arts Centre, Birnam
18th June – Ballantrae Community Centre, Girvan
19th June – McCosh Hall, Kirkmichael
20th June – Boswell Centre, Auckinleck
22nd – 23rd June – New Diorama Theatre, London
What appealed to you about the Scots of the Spanish Civil War as a subject for a theatre production?
I am especially interested in the way that the company has positioned its vision:
We seek unknown and forgotten stories lost in the evolving social landscape of modern Britain that we are able to reshape and make theatre from. We strive to create accessible, energetic and engaging work which appeals to both traditional as well as non-traditional audiences. We aim to push the fold of who contemporary theatre and performance can attract and appeal to in both conventional and out of the ordinary settings.
When we uncovered this story, from speaking to Robbie’s Grandad, we knew we were dealing with a lost part of Scottish history. We asked ourselves “why have we not heard this story before?”.
The more we spoke to people the more we realised that this part of history was at risk of being forgotten. Daniel Gray author of Homage to Caledonia talked about how pockets of activism and passion have kept this story alive. As we began to research it became apparent that we were dealing with a story of national importance that would also resonate on a local level. We wanted to play a part in ensuring that the Scottish involvement in the Spanish Civil War wasn’t confined a chapter in a higher history text book but was shared and championed to as wide an audience as possible.
Can I ask how this practice manifests itself in the production of the 549, especially in terms of attracting audiences?
In our research and development process we wanted to make sure no question was left unanswered about the four miners at the centre of the story. What did they look like? Who really were they? Why did they travel to Spain? Somebody somewhere knew the answers. And we wished to seek them out. We started the old fashioned way: with a phonebook, a pad and a pencil. We searched the names of our four miners through the phone book. In the catchment area of Prestonpans alone we found: 3 Gilmours, 2 Kemptons, 14 Dicksons and 14 Watters.
Our process of cold calling began, although we would like to think we were as warm as we possibly could have been. The first success we had was a lead on a relation to James Kempton, who was initially convinced that we were wind up merchants. After some convincing of our credentials, this woman turned out to be the daughter-in-law of James Kempton – and this turned out to be the first of many successful revelations. Following these phone calls we began to arrange meetings with these relatives over the months of August and September. Intermittently we met the relatives of our four miners in cafes, pubs and their own homes to talk about their lineages, lives and loved ones. What emerged from these meetings was an extraordinary amount of depth and detail about our character’s lives that we would never have uncovered otherwise.
On a serious note, it is immeasurably important to us to have the families support and input, and from this point onwards their integration into the project is paramount. We remained in close contact during our writing process which culminated in a sharing of the script with our actors in Prestonpans in December 2016. This was a unique kind of endorsement and contribution – and it gives us as writers and directors of the project both an added weight of responsibility and a sense of proud gratification. Through embedding our research process in the community of Prestonpans we created an audience for our work who were interested in the story and subject matter and not solely on the theatrical form.
We are furthering this process for this 2019 tour by creating an interactive exhibition that will tour with the show. One of the primary aims of 549 as a project is to champion the local, national and international impact of the people who went across to fight in Spain in 1936. The exhibition will tell the stories of members of the International Brigades who came from the places we will visit on our tour, in addition to the stories of George, Jock, Bill and Jimmy that are captured in the show itself.
These will include verbatim accounts read by the acting ensemble and interviews with historians, experts and relatives of those who were part of the International Brigades. The exhibition itself will pop up in each venue and utilise an augmented reality app, designed by Michael Galbraith, through which audience members will experience the stories and sound design created by 549 composers VanIves.
What kind of conversations do you hope that the production will encourage?
We want people to explore the history and heritage of the communities they live in. We are at a time where exploring our past is more important than ever – we begin the show by stating “We learn from history that we do not learn from history”, a quote by Georg Wilhelm Freidrich Hegel, and this is something we hope 549 will spark a conversation around.
Are there ways in which you approach the dramaturgy of the production that encourages a different type of audience engagement?
We worked with playwright Douglas Maxwell on this production. We are an emerging company and are always seeking to learn from more experienced practitioners in order to develop our craft. Approaching Douglas to collaborate with us on this project was key to the play’s development. Previous versions of the play were much more agitprop in their form but Douglas pushed us into unlocking the dramatic potential of the story we were dealing with and in the end we had something which combined what excited us most about the agitprop form and new dramatic material which we would never have written without Douglas’ dramaturgy. In addition, we collaborated with VanIves who are an emerging music band based in Glasgow, most recently headlining at Celtic Connections. VanIve’s composition, Douglas’ dramaturgy and the historical and political content meant we were appealing to audiences interested in music, history and theatre all at once.
How far do the events leading to the Spanish Civil War reflect or challenge contemporary leftist responses to global responsibility and the rise of far-right rhetoric and government?
There was a huge fear of fascism in the 1930s with the rise of the BUF led by Oswald Mosely. We saw movements in Britain where fascists were chased out of cities throughout the UK. One of the main characters in 549 was part of a radical protest meeting in the Usher Hall, Edinburgh where he brought a fascist meeting to a halt. We heard of incidents like this happening Aberdeen, Glasgow and even Perthshire, where 3000 people staged a counter rally to the BUF and pursued them out of town. In relation to the modern day, we are still fighting fascism – in 2019 there are charismatic leaders on the far right across Europe and by and large the left are well organised against this.