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Jemima Levick and Oliver Emanuel - The 306: Day

Of all the plays that looked at World War One as part of the war's 100 year commemoration, arguably the most powerful was The 306: Dawn. Performed in a barn in Perthshire, the National Theatre of Scotland and Perth Theatre's production of Oliver Emanuel's play looked at the experience of some of the 306 men executed for cowardice between 1914 and 1918. This first part of a trilogy of music theatre works used movement and a live score by Gareth Williams performed by the Red Note Ensemble alongside Emanuel's text to dramatise a piece of hidden history that became an elegy to the men. Today, it is recognised that those executed would likely have been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder, and it took the best part of a century for them to receive pardons.

Almost a year on, the second part of the trilogy opens this week in very different surroundings, as it focuses on the women behind the men that fell on the front-line. The 306: Day opens in the Station Hotel in Perth before touring to a network of Scotland's town and village halls, which were the original centres of civic life. With protest forming a key part of the play, scripted once more by Emanuel and with Williams again on board as composer, the choice of venues are as deliberate as the barn was for the first part of the trilogy.

“We knew The 306: Day would be smaller,” says the show's director Jemima Levick. “We wanted it to be lighter on its feet, and we really wanted to do the show in places where people meet. Putting part one in a big barn was totally right for that piece, but with this one we wanted to put it in spaces where protest happens. Perth railway station has these incredibly long platforms, and that's where the boys would meet before they were sent off to war. All of the other venues are where people meet, whether that's in Sloan's bar in Glasgow, or in the community halls we're going to. The play starts with a meeting, and we wanted it to happen in a place where people could see that happening.”

The 306: Day focuses on three women in 1917. The first, Gertrude Farr, struggles to cope following the execution of her husband, Harry, the real life private whose killing was documented in the the first play. The second, Mrs Byers, awaits news of her son, who ran off to join the army at the start of the war. Meanwhile, Nellie Murray works in a Glasgow munitions factory, but is also a member of the Women's Peace Crusade.

Levick is artistic director of the play's co-producers Stellar Quines, the Edinburgh based company that focuses on work by and about women. She picks up from where outgoing NTS director Laurie Sansom left off at the end of his production of The 306: Dawn.

“What struck me about the first part,” says Levick, “was that it was about these vulnerable men, and the second is about strong women. In the first play, the men were led to their death, and were effectively shot after being led astray by the government. In part two, we see how women begin the peace process, and how, rather than being just about the home front, it was women who begin acting to try and stop the war.”

This ties in with Emanuel's experience of writing the play, the roots of which arguably date back to his school days.

“In terms of poetry, most people still associate World War One with Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen,”says Emanuel, “but we studied the female poets from the same time, women like Vera Brittain, whose book Testament of Youth is really important. There were lots of others as well, so I had a sense of those voices when I started writing the play.”

Key to Emanuel's research was input from Glasgow Women's Library.

“They had an exhibition on about feminism during World War One,” he says, “and it was really interesting to find out about all these women who led these protests against the war. There was this idea as well about the opposite of silence being song, so when the women in the play speak out about something, it's in song. That reflects the protest movements of the time, and it still happens now. When people come together and protest, they sing.”

As Levick points out, “Gareth's music is integral to the show. As the women in the play sing about their experience, the music and words are as important as each other. As a director, I usually commission a composer to do something in response to what's already there, but this is far more embedded.”

As both Emanuel and Levick acknowledge, ongoing events in the world have given The 306: Day an added relevance.

“The play started off as a historical drama,” says Emanuel, “and we thought it might run the risk of ending up being about something arcane and old fashioned. Since then, the rise of Donald Trump has prompted this angry upsurge from women protesting, and who are singing out for equality and peace, and suddenly it felt like we were doing something that was about today.”

With BBC Radio 4's Today programme recently tweeting the question 'Do Women Have too Many Rights?', while Westminster has just made the controversial tax credit 'rape clause' law without a parliamentary vote, the struggles of the women in The 306: Day are far from over.

“There are lots of young women who are very angry,” says Levick, “and there is a real feeling of change among a new generation of feminists, and about some of the debates that are going on about gender today.”

As Emanuel puts it, “Every liberal battle that we thought had been won has to be re-fought. Everything seemed like it was okay for a while, so people grew complacent, but now we have to learn from women like those in the play, and to carry on the struggle.”

Despite Levick and Emanuel's observations, The 306: Day is in no way a polemic. As with its predecessor, in its evocation of the effects of war on ordinary lives, it looks set to have a very human dramatic heart

“The time the play is set in is when women's emancipation began,” says Levick, “and that was hugely affected by everything else that was going on. Would women have got the vote without the war? We don't know, but The 306: Day is a deeply personal story about how these women work out their survival techniques in extraordinary times.”

With Emanuel starting work soon on the third and final part of the trilogy, his experience working on The 306: Day has already left him with a world of possibilities to pursue.

“I think it's a story that people don't really know,” he says. “I'm excited by that, and I'm also excited by the notion that if we get together and speak or sing the truth, things can change. It may take a hundred years, but it will change.”

The 306: Day opens at the Station Hotel, Perth, May 5-13, then tours until June 3.
www.nationaltheatrescotland.com

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