The Catalan director Calixto Bieito must know a thing or two about the Spanish Civil War, with its personal perplexities and political complications. The British Council surely thought so, too, when it brokered a deal between Bieito's theatre in Barcelona, Paris's experimental MC93 Bobigny, Newcastle's Northern Stage, and Leeds's West Yorkshire Playhouse to present a stage version of George Orwell's account of his involvement in that war, Homage to Catalonia.
It's an ambitious project involving 10 English and Spanish actors playing Spanish socialist-party comrades, Soviet spies, ideological supporters and sinister militiamen. The role of Orwell (Craig Conway), who is characteristically candid about the ineptitude of the Republican citizen armies and the deprivations of the front, has the benefit of Orwell's own words to speak. In observations such as, "Political language is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable", they couldn't be more topical.
For much of the time, the rest of the cast, speaking lines in a mixture of Catalan and English dialects, complemented by surtitles and jokey simultaneous translation, appear to be improvising. This cannot be the case since Pablo Ley and Allan Baker are both credited with the adaptation. Odd little scenes about excrement; rats in the quartermaster's store; lice as the occupying invaders in every soldier's crotch; a surreal formal dinner where Orwell's torso appears to be the dish of the day; a brief drag act; a man throwing oranges out of a bath - all this dramatic camouflage merely obscures the real story, fragmentary though it may be in Orwell's book.
And the cast is kept feverishly busy lining up rows of books, bottles, bins, buckets, typewriters, covering the floor with a patchwork of jackets and trousers, or littering it with propaganda. At least we share in the tedium Orwell endured, and the feeling that the action must be happening elsewhere.
A constant murmur of percussive noise and a painfully loud eruption of a punk-rock number in which everything that can be thrashed most emphatically is, suggests that the creators just don't trust the original material to hold our attention. The gags, the wearisome "Comrade Cop" routine, the gabbling, babbling soundscape, and the rabble-rousing slogans and garbled speeches amplified around the auditorium, dilute the authorial voice. When Orwell despairs that the situation - no rifles, tin hats, maps or boots - is more like a comic opera than a war, he might be describing Josep Galindo's production itself. The contemporary footage of buzzing life and the devastating consequences of war accompanying much of the action is more interesting and moving.
It's a muddle-headed approach to a serious subject, the loss of an opportunity to point up Orwell's prescient comment on the fate of a dreaming people about to be awakened "by the roar of bombs". In this frustrating production, the suffering comes not from empathising with Orwell, shot in the neck by a sniper, but from the arrogance of such an unfocused treatment of his sombre testimony.
To 3 April (0113-213 7700); Newcastle Playhouse (0191-230 5151), 22 April to 8 MayReuse content