549: Scots Of The Spanish Civil War: Play tells the story of Scottish heroes

DO YOU WANT to travel 1500 miles to fight for a cause you believe in? Well, that’s what 549 Scots did in 1936 when they took it upon themselves to fight the rise of fascism in Spain.

The Scots have joined over 2,000 of their comrades across the UK to form the International Anti-Fascist Brigade.

Now, fire up game 549: Scots Of The Spanish Civil War takes a closer look at four Prestonpans miners who made the epic journey and what it tells us about our modern lives.

Robbie Gordon (bottom left) and Jack Nurse (right), the two creators of the play and founders of the Wonder Fools theater company, prepare to take the show on tour in Scotland.

The couple, who met when they were students at the Royal Conservatory of Scotland in Glasgow, told the Sunday National it was a story of real working-class superheroes – George Watters, Jimmy Kempton, Jock Gilmour and Bill Dickson – who had inspired the piece.

“My grandfather told me the story of four guys from my hometown, Prestonpans, who went to fight in the Spanish Civil War,” Gordon said.

“A lot of these guys basically believed that if they could stop the fascists from overthrowing the left-wing government in Spain, they could save the world and stop World War II from breaking out. It’s like one of those movies of superheroes that we’ve all been obsessed with watching for 20 years.

“We’ve been a theater company for a few years, and we’re really into the stories of real people.

“And that’s how we do everything. We work with real people.

The friends loved the story and wanted to write about it, but realized no one was alive in Scotland who had fought in the Spanish Civil War. They therefore set out to find the families of the men who had made this trip.

The nurse explained, “We got a phone book and looked up the last names of the four family members. We called out the 50 or 60 names, and asked if they were related.

“Most people didn’t know what we were talking about, but some responded to us, and that created a ripple effect.

“We spent 18 months touring Prestonpans, meeting male family members for cups of tea, lunch and even pints in the pub where the four lads used to drink.”

At this time, Gordon and Nurse drew up an early draft to perform at the Prestonpans Labor Club. They had invited 20 family members who had helped them with the story and were shocked when over 100 people showed up for the show.

“It was the first time for us to realize what a special story it was and how important it was to the local community,” he said. “It’s one thing to tell an interesting historical story, but the other half of 549 is its relevance to modern life in the UK.”

The actors originally intended it to be a retelling of the epic journey, but after each performance the audience discussed how it related to the state of the country today.

“It’s a happy accident,” Gordon said. “We wrote a historical piece first, but when we shared it with family members in the pub and everyone was talking about modern times, in the end we distilled that into the Sadly, I don’t think this piece has ever been more relevant, with major conflicts going on, a cost of living crisis, and unions battling a far-right government.

The visit to the main stage will be followed by a rural visit, to local town halls across the country.

For Gordon and Nurse, it’s important that their show be performed in places where theater companies don’t often go. This is fueled by their own experiences in rural towns – Nurse explained how her own path in the arts fell apart after her local theater in Dumfries and Galloway closed.

The two are on a mission to change that path and not back down from exclusivity, as they have made accessibility to their shows a fundamental part of the Wonder Fools ethos.

With free school shows and performances in a variety of civic spaces alongside traditional theatres, Wonder Fools has expanded across Scotland to reach as many people as possible.

For too long, acting has been seen as something for a certain type of people, Nurse explained. That’s why Wonder Fools take their pieces to such a wide variety of places. From pubs and libraries to schools and theatres, the duo say they will perform on anything that has a floor.

“We want to tell stories that relate directly to people’s lived experience,” Nurse added.

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