First published in The Times, Wednesday June 1 2016
Since its inauguration a decade ago, the National Theatre of Scotland has staged work in a number of remarkable places, including pubs, a swimming pool and Edinburgh International Airport. The latest production is perhaps its most adventurous undertaking yet. Audiences are bussed from Perth Concert Hall to an ambitiously reconfigured barn in a field in nearby Pitcairngreen. This is the immersive setting for Oliver Emanuel’s haunting play about three soldiers who were shot for cowardice during the First World War.
The narrative is divided among these individual stories, with the action unfolding in Laurie Sansom’s production across every inch of Becky Minto’s multi-levelled set. Emanuel’s treatment of his subject, while sensitive, is free of standard-issue heroics, and largely avoids simplistic preaching. His interrogation of ideas of courage, honour and war as waste emerges in the play’s more reflective moments, not least the dreams and recollections of shell shocked Private Harry Farr (Josef Davies).
Pic: Manuel Harlan
Technically, the production is impressive, with fine performances from the ensemble, and seamless interplay throughout between Minto’s scenic design, Simon Wilkinson’s wonderful lighting, and the live music, composed by Gareth Williams and performed live by the Red Note Ensemble. While the novelty of staging the opening night performance at 2.30am to recreate the atmosphere of a dawn execution proved something of a damp squib thanks to the weather, the presence of an oystercatcher calling enthusiastically at 4am added poignancy to the tragic ending.
At times, however, this collaboration between the NTS, Horsecross Arts and 14-18 Now (the cultural programme commemorating the centenary of WWI) feels overegged, with the human story almost eclipsed by the elaborate framing. The musical score, which requires the actors to sing their lines as refrains at moments of high emotion, while patchily effective, verges now and then on the unintentionally comic.
Pic: Manuel Harlan
Still, there is no denying the force of the ending, in which the barn doors slide open to reveal the firing squad framed against the early light while the three protagonists, stationed around the space, silently await their fate. This sequence has a restrained beauty and power that commands our engagement in a way that the rest of the action does only sporadically.
Box office: 01738 621031, to June 11. Nationaltheatrescotland.com