National Theatre play honours soldiers shot for cowardice

THE National Theatre of Scotland is to honour the memories of the 306 British soldiers shot for cowardice and desertion during the First World War with a major new production to be staged in its 10th anniversary season.

National Theatre of Scotland's production of the Black Watch. Picture: Robert Perry

A decade on from Black Watch, the multi-award-winning play about the impact of the Iraq war on a group of Scottish soldiers, NTS will explore the real-life stories of three young men whose contribution in the century-old conflict has been all-but-forgotten.

NTS’s 10th year will also feature a comedy inspired by fate of the Scottish student who was the last person in Britain executed for blasphemy, a celebration of Aberdeen inspired by a 19th century granite cutter, and a new series of plays based on a fifth century Greek tragedy.

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The season will include revivals for some of NTS’s most successful shows to date, include epic historical trilogy The James Plays, vampire drama Let The Right One In, supernatural comedy-drama The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart and this year’s big Fringe hit, Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, about a group of school choirgirls from Oban running amok in Edinburgh.

The tree in Flanders where Private Joseph Byers was executed. Picture: Contributed

NTS is also hopeful that next summer will see the unveiling of the company’s first permanent headquarters, in Glasgow’s canal quarter.

Before then NTS will be turning a remote barn in the Perthshire countryside into a temporary theatre for the first part of a specially-commissioned trilogy exploring the 100th anniversary of the First World War.

Oliver Emanuel’s music-theatre work, The 306: Dawn, will be set in set in France, around the time of the Battle of the Somme and will be staged to coincide with centenary commemorations next summer.

NTS says each part of the trilogy will explore the lives of the “unknown soldiers” - whose details do not appear on any of Britain’s war memorials - and “give them back their voices, stories and names.”

They include 17-year-old Joseph Byers, from Glasgow, who was officially too young to enlist, but lied about his age to sign up for military service, only to see his dreams of being a solider “destroyed by the brutal realities of trench warfare.”

The work, which will see audiences transported from Perth Concert Hall, which is co-producing the show, to a farm at Pitcairngreen, will be part of the UK’s official First World War centenary cultural programme.

It will be staged exactly 10 years after the Government agreed to give the 306 soldiers formal pardons.

Its writer, Oliver Emanuel, said: “In 2012, (composer) Gareth Williams and I were looking at all the planned memorials for the First World War.

“It felt like all the stories were about bravery and sacrifice and heroism. And whilst these were powerful testimonies, it seemed as if there was something missing. What about those who failed to live up to this ideal?

“When we found out about the 306 men shot for cowardice, desertion and mutiny – and the story of their families and the campaign for their pardon – it was an instant connection.”

NTS is pledging to turn the story of medical student Thomas Aikenhead, who was executed in Edinburgh in 1697, into a “brutal new musical comedy” to be staged at the capital’s Royal Lyceum. It will examine issues of freedom of speech by time-shifting between the 17th century and present-day Scotland.

The courtyard of Aberdeen’s famous Marischal College will host an epic theatrical production exploring the city’s most famous and unknown people and events, inspired by James Bisset, a granite cutter who travelled to Odessa, in Ukraine, armed with a fiddle and a book of Burns poetry.

One of Scotland’s leading playwrights, Zinnie Harris, will turn Aeschylus’ three-part Greek tragedy The Oresteia into This Restless House, a new saga about a family torn apart by a series of murders and betrayals, which will get its world premiere at Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre.

Let The Right One In, NTS’s award-winning stage adaptation of the Swedish novel and film, will be performed entirely in Korean when it tours to Seoul in the new year.

Taggart star Blythe Duff will be returning to head up the cast of The James Plays, Rona Munro’s trilogy about the fifth century Stewart Kings, when it tours to 11 venues across England and Scotland, as well as down under to Australia and New Zealand.

The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, David Greig’s folk theatre fable, which has been performed in 50 venues across nine countries in the last four years, will be heading to the US before an extensive tour of intimate venues across Scotland.

Another huge NTS hit, Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour, which saw the company’s former artistic director Vicky Featherstone join forces with Billy Elliot creator Lee Hall to adapt Alan Warner’s hit novel The Sopranos, will tour Scotland, England Ireland and the United States for five months.

Laurie Sansom, who has been NTS’s artistic director since 2013, said: “We are thrilled to be celebrating ten years of working with the best Scottish theatre-makers with a programme that reflects a robust and aspiring national theatre, collaborating with artists and theatres across the country to make bold and powerful work.”

More than 1.36 million people have seen 244 NTS productions in 213 locations since the company launched its first shows in February 2006.

Gregory Burke’s play Black Watch, NTS’s biggest hit, was seen by almost a quarter of a million people between its premiere at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2006 and 2013, when it stopped touring. It won four Olivier Awards, four honours at the Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland, a South Bank Show award and a Scotsman Fringe First Award.

Alistair Beaton’s Caledonia, the NTS show about Scotland’s ill-fated 17th century Darien venture, had arguably the poorest reception from the critics and was never staged again after its world premiere at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2010.