A BARN in Perthshire, they said, would be the setting for the National Theatre of Scotland’s new show about the 306 British soldiers who were shot at dawn for desertion, during the First World War.
The 306: Dawn | Rating: **** | Dalcrue, Perthshire
I guess I expected a cold 90 minutes in a rough or ruined building, of the kind where men were often held in Flanders 100 years ago; the smell of earth in my nostrils, the sound of real birdsong in the grey dawn, and the kind of show that draws its power as much from its real-life setting as from its content.
There’s none of that, though, about the NTS’s immaculately-presented production of this great new piece of music theatre by writer Oliver Emanuel and composer Gareth Williams, co-produced by Perth Theatre, and designed as the first part of a trilogy.
When the buses from Perth arrive at Dalcrue Farm, the entrance seems almost like a carefully-sculpted film set, as we walk down to the big modern warehouse barn. Beside it stands a ruined cottage, exquisitely lit by Simon Wilkinson; the barn itself has been transformed, by designer Becky Minto, into a substantial world-class theatre in the round, its walls marked out in tall, pale wooden slats, like trench props or training rifles. And we only really smell the Perthshire air once, when the doors open briefly to admit the firing squad, at the play’s inevitable end.
Yet The 306: Dawn also defies expectations in another way, in that amid the avalanche of work commemorating the First World War, it stands out as absolutely exceptional in its sheer dramatic force, and its deep, visceral combination of pity and terror.
Emanuel’s text focuses on the stories of just three of those executed, Henry Farr, Willie Stones and naive under-age Glasgow recruit Joseph Byers. Their stories unfold through dialogue, movement and sung arias, as Laurie Sansom’s superb nine-strong ensemble swirl and rush through the space, with musical director Jonathan Gill and the Red Note Ensemble playing the soaring live score.
The heart and soul of the show lies in its three central performances, not only from Scott Gilmour as the heartbreakingly young and vulnerable Byers, but from Josef Davies as Farr and Joshua Miles as Stones. At the end of the play, many in the audience will weep. There’s also a place, though, for a deep and implacable anger at the cruel, life-denying cult of death and killing that held this all-male culture in its grip. This is an indelibly powerful work of music theatre that will have that impact wherever it is performed, for many years to come.
• Dalcrue Farm, Perthshire, until 4 June