When The 306: Dusk opened at Perth Theatre this week in a co-production with the National Theatre of Scotland, it marked more than five years since Oliver Emanuel and Gareth Williams began working on the 306 project. Since then, Emanuel and Williams have created an epic First World War-inspired music theatre trilogy, which has put some of the 1914-18 war’s less sung stories into the spotlight as well as its long-term fall-out.
Emanuel began his saga in 2016 with The 306: Dawn, which was set during the war itself. The play focused on some of the 306 men who were court-martialled as traitors and shot by a firing squad, recognising that the men were likely victims of mental trauma and miscarriages of justice. It’s follow-up, The 306: Day, followed the lives of the women caught in the emotional and psychological crossfire of the war and struggling to cope following the loss of their men, either in battle or through execution.
This third and final play brings things up to date, and takes place on Armistice Day, when three quite different pilgrimages take place in what were once the battlefields of France.
“It’s a ghost story in many ways,” says Emanuel, “in which the war itself is the ghost. It’s set at dusk, which is his strange time between night and day and where things aren’t quite what they seem. Through these three characters – a pregnant teacher on a school trip, an Iraqi war veteran and a soldier executed in 1918 – we ask questions about what remembrance means, and whether we need remembrance.”
Co-commissioned by 14-18 NOW, the UK’s arts programme for the First World War centenary, the 306 trilogy forms part of a huge process of legacy-building at a time when survivors of the war are few.
“After a hundred years since the war, when no-one with any living memory of that time is around anymore, you wonder whether this is the last generation to remember it, and if so what happens next? I don’t have any easy answers, but maybe the war will be remembered because of the art that’s come out of it, whether that’s the poems of Wilfred Owen or some of the other great works that came from it.”
The first play was directed by then NTS artistic director Laurie Sansom and the second by Jemima Levick. The 306: Dusk is being overseen by Wils Wilson, whose credits include the international hit by David Greig, The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart and the Royal Lyceum Theatre Edinburgh’s recent production of Twelfth Night.
Running through all three plays has been the scores composed by Gareth Williams, which sees the cast sing to arrangements played by a live string ensemble. Out of this working relationship and sense of continuity came a sense of camaraderie between Emanuel and Williams which has helped forge the umbilical links between the three plays into a coherent whole.
“I’ve never stayed with a project this long,” says Williams “In 2012 me and Oli had a conversation about cowardice, and that’s where everything came from. I was still composer in residence with Scottish Opera at the time, and had to feel my way into it. Since then, we’ve had time to get things right and time to get things wrong, and I suppose part of Oli’s job was to open up these real-life events into a dramatic world, and it’s been my job to find where the songs might sit within that. But the whole thing has been so collaborative that I’ve never felt like I was the only composer in the room.”
The first part of the trilogy was performed in a barn in Perthshire and the second in a hotel, The 306: Dusk is being produced in a newly refurbished Perth Theatre.
“We always knew we were going to be coming in from the cold,” says Emanuel.
There is undoubtedly and deservedly a real sense of achievement that comes with the completion of the 306 trilogy. As with any project which has required such a high level of commitment, particularly one dealing with such sensitive areas as The 306 has, there will also be a sense of loss that goes with it. As Williams puts it, “Because you’ve spent so long with it, you know there’s a real sadness coming when it ends.”
For Emanuel, the end of the 306 trilogy has been a cause for reflection.
“It’s been such a huge privilege to write a trilogy like this,” he says. “On a purely personal level, when I started this project five years ago I was 32 and still working out what sort of writer I was and what sort of writer I wanted to be.”
Five years on, Emanuel is clear about how he sees this particular body of work.
“I never thought of The 306 as a historical trilogy,” he says. “I always thought I was just writing about people with problems, and I wanted to write about these people’s lives and how these stories happened. There’s a kind of mirror that’s run all the way through, so the first one was set in 1916 and performed in 2016, the second was set in 1917 and performed in 2017, and it’s the same with this third one. The challenge for me is that it’s called The 306, but you can’t write the stories of all of them, but the great thing about theatre is that it can stand for other things.”
With The 306: Dusk now up and running, what does Emanuel think is likely to be the trilogy’s own lasting legacy?
“I’m still figuring that out,” he says. “It usually takes me a while to get a full sense of what I’ve been writing about, and with The 306 I think that’s especially been the case. One thing is that I don’t want to avoid the difficult parts of the story of the First World War, and I suppose I’m grinding the oyster of our national myth. Above all, I think I’m asking what responsibility we have to soldiers today.”
The 306: Dusk, Perth Theatre, October 10-27.