In a barn outside Perth, three young men are being forced to face up to their unplanned, unwanted and heartlessly unnecessary destiny in Oliver Emanuel's meditation on the 306 men executed for cowardice in World War One. As brought exquisitely to life in Laurie Sansom's impressionistic music theatre staging, this epic co-production between the National Theatre of Scotland, World War One centenary art commissioning project, 14-18 NOW, and Perth Theatre in association with Red Note Ensemble belatedly honours the dead.
Emanuel's play focuses on three of the men; Harry Farr, Joseph Byers and Joseph 'Willie' Stones, and shows the human frailties behind their eventual fate. From a shellshocked Farr's final moments with his young wife Gertrude, to Byers' enthusiasm to join up, all three men are brutalised by the institution they so loyally served.
Seen between the hours of 2.30 and 4am, the action moves across five stages which are raised above designer Becky Minto's complex network of catwalks and framed by a platform fenced by trees carved into the shape of rifles. Sansom's swansong as artistic director of the NTS shows off his ability to navigate a cast around such a vast expanse in a way that makes every moment matter.
As well-drilled ensembles go, the nine actors are more than a match for the highly choreographed chutzpah of Black Watch, that other war-based dramatic collage that first put the NTS on the map. Here, however, the imagery drawn from Emanuel's writing is gentler and more vulnerable as it betrays . the fear and horror of cannon fodder packed off to a foreign land, with some of those fighting for a cause they could barely comprehend not long out of short trousers.
It is driven too by the sweep of Gareth Williams' score, in which the actors part sing their lines accompanied by Red Note Ensemble members, pianist Jonathan Gill, cellist Robert Irvine and violin player Jackie Shave. Josef Davies, Scott Gilmour and Joshua Miles play Harry, Joe and Willie with an unerring grace in this most brilliantly moving of elegies.
The Herald, May 30th 2016