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When Spain revolted

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A new play based on George Orwell's eyewitness account of the 1930s revolution in Spain chimes with today's movement
Issue 1894

CHRISTIAN HOGSBJERG reviews the play Homage to Catalonia, based on George Orwell’s book of that name, and MIGUEL ARIAS recommends Orwell’s original account of revolution in Barcelona.

THIS PIONEERING theatrical adaptation was conceived in part as a political response to imperialist war and a neo-liberal agenda which respects only profit margins in questions of culture.

The Catalan director Calixto Bieito has argued that Orwell’s eloquent descriptions of workers’ power in Spain allow us to ‘remember the idea of utopia’ in a world ‘dominated by intolerant and bellicose politicians such as Bush, Blair and Aznar.

‘During the 1930s revolution in Barcelona it was possible for people to seize freedom and to be tolerant. Today the message of the past is that we must fight for peace and diversity.’ The play itself certainly succeeds in reminding us of the horrors of war-the mud, the lice, the rats, the cold, the interminable boredom only broken by moments of absolute terror.

Yet the contribution of Bieito and his Catalan group Teatre Romea makes this lively play very literally a ‘homage to Catalonia’ and its heroic resistance to fascism.

Film footage, live music and language (about one quarter of the lines are in Catalan with subtitles) combine well with, at times, strikingly dramatic effect. One feels the spirit of internationalism and democracy in the play, as the narrative becomes more than just one Englishman’s perspective on Spain, but the shared experience of the revolutionary militia Orwell fought with.

The script is far more political than I thought it might be. It gives a real sense of the betrayal of the Spanish revolt against fascism by not just the British and French governments, but also by Stalinist Russia and its agents inside Spain.

This play is the result of international artistic collaboration across borders, and is arguably a reflection that culture is catching up with the anti-capitalist movement.

As Bieito reminds us, ‘If enough people want to, it’s possible to change the world.’

Orwell wrote of his time in revolutionary Barcelona, that ‘I had dropped into the only community of any size in western Europe where political consciousness and disbelief in capitalism were more normal than their opposites.’ Anyone today wanting to get a sense of how inspirational such an experience can be should make sure they do not miss the European Social Forum when it comes to London in October.

In the meantime, any self respecting anti-capitalist could do worse than trying to catch this play.

  • Homage to Catalonia is playing at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds from 15 March until 3 April and will be in Newcastle from 22 April to 8 May.

    GEORGE ORWELL’S book is a first-hand account of the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s. It gives a vivid picture of everyday life in revolutionary Barcelona, where the working class was in control, ‘in the saddle’ as Orwell put it. Orwell joined the militias and went to the front where he was seriously wounded.

    He was taken to Barcelona where he found the former working class enthusiasm of the city totally changed as the Stalinists increased their influence, suppressing the revolution. Orwell’s descriptions of the revolutionary spirit have been recently shown to be alive in Spain.

    The night before the recent election people took spontaneously to the streets protesting against the lies of the government and the occupation of Iraq. I’m sure Aznar and Co understood that night who is really ‘in the saddle’.

    Homage to Catalonia is available from Bookmarks for £7.99. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to

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