The 306: Dawn (4 stars)

A production image from The National Theatre of Scotland's The 306: Dawn

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan

A new take on ‘War is Hell’

Elegantly designed by Becky Minto, and with a stirring script from Oliver Emanuel, The National Theatre of Scotland’s The 306: Dawn is a bold take on the commemoration of the First World War. Remembering the true stories of those soldiers executed for cowardice or desertion, it is unsentimental and compassionate. By bringing to light the injustice of military discipline – the men were largely executed to enforce discipline in others – it refuses to flinch at the firing squad while recognising that war distorts moral values and justice.

In collaborating with The Red Note Ensemble, Laurie Sansom directs a solid piece of music theatre: not strictly a musical, despite featuring emotive songs, but drive by the composition of Gareth Williams, performed live. The site-responsive set, specially built within a Perthshire barn lifts the action away from a traditional stage, allowing the cast to appear and disappear around the audience, evoking the complex geography of the trenches – and forcing them into intimate proximity.

The ensemble cast rise to the challenge: a trembling leg or shivering gesture revealing the emotional turmoil lurking beneath their brave facades or desperate questioning. Scott Gilmore is pathetic as Joe Byers, a soldier both too young and too stupid to understand the implication of enlisting, while Josef Davies and Joshua Miles present the bravery – ironically for men accused of cowardice – of Henry Farr and Willie Stones. Their performances, Emanuel’s script and the clarity of Sansom’s direction, do justice to the men’s lives, even where the military failed.

Williams' score, however, is uneven. Sometimes following a minimalist tradition, other times aiming at a more expansive romanticism, it creates a powerful ambiance but the songs – especially the duets between Farr and his wife – slow the narration and add dream sequences that detract from the thrust of the drama. Alongside Sansom’s spectacular coup de theatre, such as the slow opening of the barn doors to reveal a firing squad, or the subtle vignettes of army life, Farr’s longing for his wife, who becomes a symbol of liberation, is laboured.

Yet Sansom’s intention, to tell the stories of these forgotten victims, is achieved. Their lives are chronicled and placed in their historical context; their deaths are portrayed as tragic and pointless. By keeping the final executions relatively brief and unsentimental, and weaving the men’s journey around the complex set and through scenes of the military machine’s relentless progress towards death, The 306 stands out in a year of WWI theatre works as an intelligent reflection on the horror of war without slipping into the easy clichés.

Dalcrue Farm, Pitcairngreen, Perth, until Sat 11 Jun.

The 306: Dawn

A new piece of music theatre charting the journey of three of the 306 British soldiers who were executed for cowardice, desertion and mutiny during World War I. Directed by Laurie Sansom, written by Oliver Emanuel and composed by Gareth Williams.

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