First published in The Times, Tuesday May 16 2017
When, a year ago, the National Theatre of Scotland unveiled the first instalment in its proposed trilogy of plays addressing the forgotten voices of World War I, the company effectively created a bespoke theatre space in a vast barn on a Perthshire farm. This follow-up, again written by the playwright Olivier Emanuel, with music by Gareth Williams, shifts the focus from a trio of men shot for cowardice or desertion during the Great War to women munitions workers, pacifists and suffragettes. The production, directed by Jemima Levick, has a stripped-back, intimate feel, and is being toured around smaller venues the length and breadth of Scotland.
Once again, Emanuel’s dialogue, based on extensive research including interviews with descendants of the real-life characters, tightly interlocks with Williams’s music, with the characters bursting into sung refrains at moments of heightened emotion. Where, in the original show, this device felt a little ungainly at times, here the sung passages, performed to a spare accompaniment of cello and piano, have a heady emotional power and feature a near-perfect blend of voices from the six-strong ensemble.
Pic: Marilyn Kingwill
Neither of the main plot strands in Emanuel’s play is lacking in such scenes of high-stakes emotion. The first follows Nellie (Dani Heron), an industrial worker who falls foul of the Defence of the Realm act for her vocal pacifism. In the second strand, Gertrude (Amanda Wilkin) abruptly finds herself without a widow’s pension due to her husband’s having been executed for cowardice. The scene in which Gertrude realises she has no choice but to turn her back for the time being on her husband’s memory is an incredibly moving coup de grace, performed with show-stopping intensity by Wilkin.
Pic: Marilyn Kingwill
While there are references to characters from the first episode, this instalment, created in association with Stellar Quines, Perth Theatre and Red Note Ensemble, is also clearly a standalone work, with an energy and atmosphere of its own. Despite the odd expositional passage in the script, the depiction of an intoxicating, ruthlessly policed patriotism feels more relevant than ever. Levick choreographs her versatile cast with precision and momentum, in a sequel that more than stands up to the original.
Box office: 01738 621031, to May 13. Touring Scotland to June 3