Oliver Emanuel and Gareth Williams’ The 306: Dawn is the first instalment of a trilogy of work telling the story of the 306 soldiers shot for desertion and cowardice during the First World War. Directed by Laurie Sansom in his final act as artistic director of National Theatre of Scotland, the deft composition of music, theatre, and physical performance ensures that the production stands out in a year of works that reflect upon the horrors of war.
Staged in a barn in rural Perthshire, the audience are seated in the trenches looking up at the performers who are isolated on wooden islands. Becky Minto’s set is effective but ultimately too clean; the large wooden silhouettes of rifles that adorn the walls create a labyrinthine forest for the performers to hide behind and experiment with, but the neatly sanded pine does little to evoke the chaotic, muddy march towards modernity found in the trenches.
Playwright Emanuel’s text focuses on the stories of just three of those executed, and the trio’s stories are accompanied by delicate arias, frequently featuring the poignant refrain ‘I have no name’. All of the performances are strong and well-pitched. Of particular note is Scott Gilmour’s portrayal of Joseph Byers, an impossibly young 17-year-old recruit from Glasgow who lies his way onto the front line only to be destroyed by the relentless realities of trench warfare. Gilmour’s performance is heart-wrenching and tender, particular in his final moments of begging for clemency. It’s disappointing then that the only female actor in the cast, Emily Byrt, is little more than a placeholder typifying the women left back home.
Gareth Williams‘ score is affecting and movingly performed live by the Red Note Ensemble, but the production suffers from some slower ebbs, with scenes of domesticity dipping the pace. Overall, however, Sansom has somehow created something at once delicate and forceful, emotive yet numbing. Emerging bleary-eyed into the damp dawn air with a lump in my throat, I can’t quite figure out how he’s done it.