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New Wonder Fools theatre production 549: Scots of the Spanish Civil War draws new lessons from conflict and Prestonpans miners who fought as it lines up performances at Lyth Arts Centre and Eden Court, Inverness

By Kyle Walker

IN Prestonpans, no one can hear you ring – not via mobile phone, at least.

549: Scots of the Spanish Civil War is beginning its tour at the East Lothian fishing town – appropriately enough, as it is also where the play is based, telling the story of four miners who left to join the International Brigades to fight for the Spanish republic in the 1936 conflict.

It has a great deal of historical and dramatic significance for this production – but not so much in the way of mobile phone signal. As 549’s co-writer Robbie Gordon laughs after another crackling signal drop, “This is the perils of rural touring, isn’t it!”

But then, there are much, much more pressing concerns than phone signal – telling as it does the story of one of history’s most resonant conflicts. The Spanish Civil War saw soldiers and volunteers from all over the world fly to battle against what they saw as a rising tide of fascism.

And for Robbie, being able to tell that story has never been so relevant. “It’s such a timely subject matter, and it somehow becomes more and more relevant as time goes on,” he said.

“The play deals with the rise of fascism in 1936, and it’s something that we’re seeing again all across the country – right wing, slightly fascist groups are forming. It’s all about how local communities and people can stand up for what they believe in.”

The story is told from a 2017 perspective – four millenials in a pub are told the story of the four Prestonpans miners – George Watters, Jock Gilmour, Jimmy Kempton, and Bill Dickson – who travelled to Spain to fight for a cause that they believed in.

"The story was told originally to us in a pub by the relatives of George Watters, and when we were told this story in a pub there was something quite magical about it."

“I think there was this general belief that young people are fairly apathetic nowadays,” Robbie explained. “And I think what our play looks to do is challenge that.

“But it also looks at how we can learn from our history, because the problems that we’re facing in our modern society aren’t often new. For me it’s sad how things keep popping up again – but there’s a great deal we can learn from our history.

“And I think for us, bringing it into the modern day was intentional in the sense that we wanted to make the work as accessible as possible particularly for young people, and also just to bring the story right up to date.”

And the pub setting was important too – paying tribute to how they originally learned about Prestonpans’ International Brigadiers. “The story was told originally to us in a pub by the relatives of George Watters, and when we were told this story in a pub there was something quite magical about it.”

And by trying to keep that magic alive, they’re following in the footsteps of some of Scotland’s most famous theatre companies. “There were companies that came before like [original The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black, Black Oil producers] 7:84 and Wildcat that came in the 70s and 80s that were going all about Scotland, telling stories with music and movement and song and dance and we just loved the idea of that – and it was something that we really tried to emulate.

“For us it’s really important that our audience are comfortable and they feel engaged. Bringing stories to people is something that we’re really really passionate about, and one of the things that we’ve been able to do with this tour is through a combination of traditional theatre venues coupled with town halls, community venues.

“For us it’s about trying to take the story as far and wide as possible to as many different people as we can.”

Wonder Fools’ production of 549: Scots of the Spanish Civil War comes to Lyth Arts Centre on Wednesday and Thursday, before a later date at Eden Court, Inverness on Saturday, June 1. For more information, go to www.wonderfools.org

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