A Scottish play that remembers the forgotten stories of WWI deserters

The Shot at Dawn Memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum remembers the 306 British servicemen who were shot for cowardice or desertion during the First World War, the subject of Oliver Emanuel's new play, The 306
The Shot at Dawn Memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum remembers the 306 British servicemen who were shot for cowardice or desertion during the First World War, the subject of Oliver Emanuel's new play, The 306
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Playwright Oliver Emanuel found his spiritual home when he moved to Scotland – and his latest work, about the fate of deserters in the First World War, promises to be one of the theatrical highlights of 2016

Sometime after midnight, on an evening in late May, an audience will gather in a barn at Dalcrue Farm, deep in the Perthshire countryside. At that time of year, the first signs of dawn will come before 3am; and it’s then, at first light, that the National Theatre of Scotland will present the opening performance of one of its most significant new projects of 2016, the first part of a three-year trilogy called The 306, about the 306 British servicemen who were shot at dawn for cowardice and desertion during the First World War, just 100 years ago.

Oliver Emanuel's Dragon

Oliver Emanuel's Dragon

It won’t be the kind of show in which the words are the first thing to catch the audience’s attention; they’re more likely to recall the special location, or the fact that the work is poised somewhere between theatre and opera, with actors singing as well as speaking.

Yet all the same, the words and the storytelling will matter; and the man behind them will be Oliver Emanuel, a young writer who first arrived in Scotland just ten years ago, and has since won a growing reputation as one of the most gifted writers in Scottish theatre. Emanuel’s first play written in Scotland was an adult piece called Videotape, presented at A Play, A Pie And A Pint in 2008, by the ever-enthusiastic David MacLennan.

Since then, though, he has mainly wrtten plays for children, working with companies like Visible Fictions and the Macrobert at Stirling. And it was the huge success of his wordless young people’s show Dragon – a study of a teenage boy’s unmanageable grief following the death of his mother, co-produced by the NTS, the Glasgow company Vox Motus, and the People’s Art Theatre of Tianjin in China, and revived at the 2015 Edinburgh International Festival – that led to the NTS’s invitation to create a new project, and so to The 306.

“You know, every word of Dragon was written,” says Emanuel, drinking coffee in the CCA in Sauchiehall Street. “The dialogue is there in the script, the actors know what they’re saying; it’s just that we can’t hear them – just as the boy can’t speak for grief, and can’t hear what’s being said to him. I always think that in the best dramatic writing, the writer should be almost invisible; that it’s not about the writer’s voice, but about the story speaking for itself.”

Emanuel was born in Kent in 1980, the son of a lawyer who had been an enthusiastic student actor at Cambridge, and a mum who was an English and drama teacher. Theatre was part of his life from a very early age, but his parents didn’t want him to have “an education that was all about privilege.” So Emanuel went to the local school, and then in 1998 to Leeds University, which offered exactly the kind of drama course he wanted.

“It’s as if my life has taken me on a kind of journey northward,” says Emanuel. “I loved my time at Leeds – I met the writer, performer and director Dan Bye there, and we’ve been best friends ever since. I got the chance to direct, which was great; but after a whiIe I wanted to write my own theatre pieces. After we graduated, Dan and I formed a company, and brought my play Iz to the Edinburgh Fringe in 2004; but at that point my mum was diagnosed with cancer, and I went home for a year.

“And after she died, I just felt lost. I felt I’d gone as far as I could in Leeds. I really didn’t like the London scene, didn’t seem to click with any part of it; and my then girlfriend, the actress Melody Grove, who was studying at the Royal Scottish Academy in Glasgow, said, ‘Well, why don’t you come up here?’”

“So I did. I was already a fan of the previous generation of Scottish writers; the only book I ever stole in my life was a collected works of David Greig that a mate of mine had in Leeds. I also immediately liked the scale of the Scottish theatre scene, the fact that it’s small enough that you can make connections easily. For example, the involvement with children’s theatre started because of Imaginate in Edinburgh, and the wonderful Tony Reekie – they had a writers’ package which meant that you could attend the whole Festival for £10, which was great for me, since I was pretty broke.

“I’d never really thought about chldren’s theatre before, but I instantly loved the fact that it was so free, and so inventive in form. I loved that the audience was so alive, and so honest in its reactions. And then I realised that those audiences loved narrative and character, and I did too; I think for a long time I’d been trying to be someone like Caryl Churchill or Samuel Beckett, who write in much more abstract ways, and that wasn’t really me.

“Then soon after that, I was lucky enough to get a commission to work with young offenders in Polmont, the Scottish Young Offenders’ institution, and that was a real creative and political awakening for me. I began to feel very strongly that there are stories to be told about people who have been forgotten; and that was part of what led me to The 306. I also stopped worrying about my “career”, because I realised that in writing, there is no “career”. All that happens is that you write plays, and then you hope that they mean something to people.”

Whether he worries about it or not, though, Emanuel’s career has been on an upward track over the last half-decade, through shows like Visible Fictions’ internationally acclaimed monologue Titus, about a boy on the brink of suicide. Emanuel also teaches at the University of St Andrews, and has a thriving parallel career as a radio writer; he is one of three main writers on the current great Radio 4 cycle of Emile Zola novels.

“I do now absolutely feel that I’m a playwright,” says Emanuel. “I never get the urge to direct any more. And these are quite tough times for playwrights in Scotland. Despite the amount of money in the system, there has been a climate of austerity for freelance theatre artists for years now, with theatres constantly telling us how little money they’ve got; now there are real cuts coming, and the loss of the Arches is just awful for Glasgow.

“Yet despite all the negatives, I still feel incredibly happy to be here, and very excited about the possibilities – including David Greig taking over as artistic director of the Lyceum, and the next two parts of The 306.

“And in terms of identity – well I’d say, now, that I’m an English person, but a Scottish playwright; I write for Scottish voices. I live in the South 
Side of Glasgow, and in our house we were very pro-Yes in last year’s referendum, mainly because of the inspiring conversation around it about what Scotland could be. Because in the end, I think the future of Scotland lies in its acceptance of a multiplicity of identities, a multiplicity of voices; and now, I feel I’m absolutely part of that, not only in my life, but in my work, which is all about making sure that the widest possible range of those voices is recognised, and heard.”

• The 306: Dawn is at Dalcrue, Perthshire, 24 May-11 June, www.nationaltheatrescotland.com