The 306: Dawn
Dalcrue Farm, Perthshire
Until June 11
Reviewed by Mark Brown
The National Theatre of Scotland (NTS) is, famously, a “theatre without walls”. With no home theatre of its own, it can, and does, present its work in any venue its pleases, anywhere in Scotland and, indeed, beyond.
I was not entirely surprised, then, to find myself in a huge barn on a farm in Perthshire at 2.15 yesterday morning for a special press performance of the NTS’s latest show The 306: Dawn. The musical theatre piece, which is the first in a trilogy, tells the true stories of three of the 306 British soldiers who were shot at dawn for cowardice, desertion and mutiny during the First World War.
Like Iraq War play Black Watch, the most critically acclaimed production in the NTS’s 10-year history, the show eschews the trappings of a conventional theatre space in pursuit of a sense of itself as a public event. The dawn timing of yesterday’s performance provided additional atmospheric authenticity; future audiences, who will be transported by bus from Perth Concert Hall to Dalcrue Farm, will be relieved to know that they will have more civilised start times of 2pm and 8pm.
Inside the barn designer Becky Minto has created a gargantuan set of platforms, trenches and gantries which run between, behind and above the audience. Here we encounter Lance-Sergeant Joseph William Stones (aged 24, from Durham), Private Harry Farr (aged 25, from London) and Private Joseph Byers (a 17-year-old Glaswegian who lied about his age in order to enlist), who are to die under terms of military discipline that are as draconian as they are disregarding of the emotional and mental maiming caused by the conflict.
The swan song of departing NTS artistic director Laurie Sansom, the piece is expressed in stark, often deliberately prosaic dialogue and lyrics by writer Oliver Emanuel. The language contrasts affectingly with beautiful live music by composer Gareth Williams, which is, by turns, plaintive, poignant and dramatic.
Which is not to say that the production – which is a collaboration between the NTS, Perth Theatre, Red Note Ensemble and First World War centenary arts organisation 14-18-Now – is without its problems. Despite the fact that the nine-strong cast are wearing microphones, the show, which is played in-the-round, occasionally loses its battle with the unforgiving acoustics of its cavernous venue.
The unheard lines of dialogue and song are symptomatic of a work that, in spite of the best efforts of a fine cast, is somewhat stilted in its structure. One admires the play’s desire to name and honour the memories of those unjustly executed, even if the show doesn’t quite measure up to its own epic billing.
For further information and performance times, visit: horsecross.co.uk
An abridged version of this review was originally published in the Sunday Herald on May 29, 2016
© Mark Brown