It was in 2006 that the House of Commons finally voted to pardon the 306 British soldiers shot for cowardice and desertion during the First World War; and the story of those men is such a poignant and complex one that it makes a sad and brilliant starting point for the National Theatre of Scotland’s music theatre trilogy marking the centenary of the war, written by Oliver Emanuel, composed by Gareth Williams, and co-produced with Perth Theatre and Stellar Quines.
The 306: Day ****
The Station Hotel, Perth
The first part of the trilogy was staged a year ago in a Perthshire barn, telling the story of four of the men in a music-theatre piece of tremendous sadness and power. And now, the second play focuses on the women at home who bore the consequences of their deaths, using a more mixed format of song, movement and forceful drama to bring to life the stories of Gertrude, the widow of Harry Farr, and Nellie, sister of Joseph Byers. Gertrude’s story is the true-life one of a dignified young widow suffering absolute penury after her husband’s pension is denied, and unable ever to speak about her loss; Nellie’s is fictional, and imagines a vibrant young woman who channels her rage into vigorous peace campaigning, until she falls victim to the authorities, and to the notorious Defence Of The Realm Act.
In Jemima Levick’s passionate 100-minute production, both stories blend seamlessly into a sense of the rush and horror and back-breaking work of life on the home front in 1917, as Emanuel imagines the women working in a munitions factory with a team of four others, through 14-hour days on the production line. The music and song is sometimes almost overwhelming, the movement eloquent, the cast - led by Amanda Wilkin as Gertrude and Dani Heron as Nellie - so fiercely committed to the story that they glow with a kind of angry incandescence.
And although there have been many shows created in memory of the Great War over the past three years, I can’t recall one so possessed by the urgent sense that however much has changed, the world of these women is the same one we still inhabit today; marked not only by the continuing battle to make women’s voices heard, but by the unending struggle for freedom of speech and thought, against the kind of unthinking patriotism that can so quickly become the enemy of truth, wherever and whenever it appears.
*The 306: Day is at the Station Hotel, Perth until 13 May, and on tour across Scotland until 3 June