‘We learn from history that we do not learn from history.’ — Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel
And so commences the opening scene of the first staging of 549, bellowed out by Robbie Gordon as George Watters, the central protagonist. The show takes place on April 1st, 2015, at the Old Hairdresser’s performance venue on Renfield Lane. It is the culmination of over a month’s worth of research, development, and rehearsal, and an honest reflection of WF’s creative intentions.
Jack and Robbie’s journey first begins at RCS, where they hole themselves away and pour over books, documents, and artwork, in order to create a piece that is both informative and fluid enough to leap off the page and take on a life itself.
This intention is carried past the initial development stage as Wonder Fools goes into casting. The actors destined to portray the men who leave Prestonpans, alongside Robbie Gordon as George Watters, in the fight against fascism are Euan Bennet, Jamie Hughes, and David Kirkwood.
While all three of them are professionally studied and trained actors, they fit into the mould of authenticity that Jack and Robbie aim to uphold. They also have interests outside of acting, such as music and dance, which prove crucial to the physical demands of the script, as well as when the company performs the moving war-ballad, ‘Jarama,’ towards the conclusion of the show.
Collaborating throughout the rehearsal process, each actor voices his opinions and ideas throughout blocking.The innovativeness of Jack Nurse’s direction is apparent in the choreography of a battle sequence, which sees each of the men frantically scrambling about the stage. While this sequence is perhaps influenced by Jack and Robbie’s training in Contemporary Performance Practice, it is also metaphorical in its allusion to the often disorderly organisation of the International Brigades troops in battle; directions from superior officers were often misconstrued or wrongly interpreted, effectively sending the troops into a confusion that could prove deadly, as was the case at the Battle of Ebro.
The entirety of the show takes the four coal miners-turned-soldiers from Prestonpans, East Lothian, to the horrors of the Spanish frontier and back — although not all of them survive the war. Mirroring the last minutes of the show, a projected screen behind the actors cuts to modern-day conflicts, ranging from Middle Eastern war-zones to the erratic scene of George Square, Glasgow, on the day of the Scottish Referendum. The film clip brings the opening words of the play into a final, profound resonance.
549 is engaging enough to propel audience members into a foreign time and place. However, the goal of Wonder Fools isn’t simply to provide its audience with escapism or to barrage it with a wave of historical information. Jack and Robbie want to take us along on a creative journey that can empower us to draw parallels between history and the present and to strive to always be socially conscious in our daily lives.
In anticipation of the forthcoming staging of 549, readers can check out the Wonder Fools blog. It features content on the rehearsal, development, and reflective process of performance art, from Robbie’s thoughtful essay on the parallels between 1937 Spain and the present-day Migrant Crisis to Jack’s reflection on the challenges of balancing historical accuracy with creative license.