By Theo Russell
IT IS ALMOST unheard of these days on the London theatre scene to come across a committed anti-fascist musical, in which there are two renditions of The Internationale, as well as No Pasaran! and A valley in Spain called Jarama.
Even for those like myself with no great love for musicals, Goodbye Barcelona, currently showing at the Arcola Theatre in Hackney, is a stirring, visually superb and extremely well acted production. As much a play as it is a musical; there’s a good dose of humour as well.
It is remarkable that today, 75 years after the start of the Spanish Civil War, its politics are still the subject of heated debate and argument in Britain. While Goodbye Barcelona refers to many of the crucial issues – the Soviet Union’s role, the anarchists, and the despicable Anglo-French non-intervention policy – its main focus is on the experiences of three very different International Brigade volunteers.
While the political message becomes slightly confusing towards the end, ultimately the anti-fascist message is not lost.
The story begins in London’s East End in 1936 and 18-year-old Sammy’s part in the battle of Cable Street. Sammy and his single mother Rebecca are Jewish working class anti-fascists and Daily Worker readers.
Sammy responds to La Pasionaria’s appeal to defend the Spanish Republic and decides to become a volunteer. In Spain he falls in with George, an older and more experienced communist, and Jack, a bitter and cynical veteran of the Great War.
Later Rebecca, desperate to find her son, joins the brigade as a nurse, and falls in love with the wounded Spanish anarchist Ernesto, from a remote village in the grip of fascist feudal landowners.
Much of the play is taken up by this affair, and Sammy’s with Spanish girl Pilar, both of which reflect the enormous hardships and sacrifices endured during the war. But more interesting is the ongoing conflict Sammy and George have with the cynic Jack.
Jack is provocative, constantly harping on Stalin’s alleged “treachery”, and morally dubious, and Sammy and George angrily berate Jack’s lack of morals and political commitment.
The climax of the show is towards the end when Sammy, facing the prospect of defeat, becomes disillusioned and defeatist. Just before dying in battle, he tells Jack: “I’m too ashamed to go home. We’ve lost. We’ve lost everything.” But Jack reassures him, saying “You’ve told me enough times. The People!”
After Sammy’s death Rebecca receives his letter in the same defeatist tone, and says to Ernesto: “We should never have come,” to which he responds: “Don’t you say that! Don’t you dare say that! Spain will never forget what you people try to do for us. Never.”
This episode is somewhat confusing, but the message is that the sacrifices of the International Brigadiers were after all worthwhile and necessary, and that while individuals caught up in war react differently; the volunteers’ cause was heroic and just.
The play is based on a collection of interviews with Brigade veterans by Judith Johnson, with music and lyrics by K S Lewkowicz, and was directed and choreographed by Karen Rabinowitz. It received strong support from Civil War veterans, including the late Jack Jones, and the International Brigade Memorial Trust.
The press launch was attended by the Spanish ambassador and cultural attache and representatives of the Catalan government, and was widely reviewed in Spain. We recommend our readers to see Goodbye Barcelona for themselves.
Goodbye Barcelona runs at the Arcola Theatre until 23rd December (box office 0207 503 1646). Entrance on Tuesdays is pay what you can afford.