Oliver Emanuel on The 306: Dawn

Feature by Emma Ainley-Walker | 20 May 2016

Oliver Emanuel talks his upcoming World War One trilogy, finding a balance between opera and theatre, and Netflix before The 306:Dawn takes the stage this month. 

The centenary of the First World War began in 2014, sparking a slew of remembrance across the fields of art, film and politics. From May 2016 going through to 2018, Scottish theatre is joining up and honouring the men who fought in the war and the women connected with them. With a new trilogy of plays produced by the National Theatre of Scotland, playwright Oliver Emanuel looks at the story of the 306 men who were shot by our own side for cowardice, desertion and other military offences, and the 90-year-long campaign to pardon them. Taking a break from rehearsals to share coffee with The Skinny over at the Scottish Opera cafe, Emanuel talks about his reasons behind writing the play, the shape it would take, and the influence of Netflix on how and why we consume theatre. 

“I feel quite strongly that the stories that we tell ourselves matter. Now that no one from the First World War is alive – the last person who fought in the First World War is dead – I think how we remember these things affects us today,” Emanuel says on the importance of honouring this centenary. “Every year there’s the poppies and every year there’s lots of talk about heroism and bravery of the men, and I think how we remember the First World War is how we think about the military today. We talk about heroes and we talk about bravery and sacrifice; I suppose what I was interested in exploring was a story that made people think about things in a different way.

“I’m suspicious of single narratives, and the single narrative of a just war where heroes fought... I don’t know if I completely trust that. I’m interested in asking how do we remember and why do we remember certain bits of stories but not other bits? A lot of these men were almost amateur soldiers. They were stuck in trenches and they were bombarded day and night. How would we feel in that situation? In trying to imagine what it’s like to be in that situation, the notions of heroism and cowardice don’t really hold much water. I guess I’m asking the question, 'Is there such a thing as a hero and is there such a thing as a coward?'”

An authentic setting

Trying to ask that question within as authentic a setting as possible has led to many unique or stand-out features of the play, not least of which is a young cast. “You’ve got to remember that that’s what was so shocking about the First World War – how young everyone was. One of the main stories in the play is about a young Scottish guy called Joseph Byers who was 17 when he joined up and had only two weeks of training – from the time he joined up in Glasgow to the time he was executed in France, it was only three months. To have young performers playing that role, I think, is quite powerful. [It's] really exciting that we get to represent someone on stage and tell their story in the most authentic way we can.” 

However, what might be most atmospheric and most different about this play is the setting: a Perthshire barn. “It’s a very calm and tranquil place,” as the author describes it, which may seem to many the opposite of what a war story should be. To Emanuel, however, it is perfect. “When we started researching it Gareth [Williams, composer] and I went to the Somme. All the cemeteries are at the edge of fields and these fields are being farmed, so you’re standing in a cemetery where hundreds of people died and there’s a tractor going past you. When we were looking for somewhere to do this we always felt we wanted somewhere outside, somewhere really agricultural, so we’re doing it in a barn on a real farm in Perthshire in that area.” He stresses that this choice is far from a gimmick. “It’s not like it's pornographic; we’re not trying to throw people back into the First World War. It’s not a theme park. It's a poetic response.”

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Along with location, music is also of huge significance to the piece, and Emanuel describes his working relationship with co-creator Williams as being born out of a desire to create “opera that theatre people liked and a piece of theatre that opera people liked."

"When we approached this," he explains, "I wrote a play and then we tried to work out where moments of music and song could happen that felt organic, where it wouldn't be strange for someone to sing. Obviously the strangest thing about opera or musicals is when someone just starts singing for no apparent reasons" – as Emanuel perfectly illustrates by partly singing his answers in the busy cafe – "so we’ve tried to find reasons why that would happen and hopefully we’ve done that. We've got Gareth’s knowledge of opera on one side and my theatre knowledge, and putting that together we’ve kind of created something that’s a bit of a hybrid form. It’s not a musical and it’s not an opera or a play; it’s somewhere in between.” 

Music will be provided onstage (or in-barn) by the Edinburgh based Red Note Ensemble with a piano, a violin and a cello. “There’s singing, there’s movement, there’s acting, there’s drama. For me it’s really important that theatre has everything, especially if we’re going to drag people away from Netflix and iPlayer. You have to have something that’s really special and important and I hope that this show will,” Emanuel half-jokes.

'Box set theatre'

The third trilogy in as many years to be created by the National Theatre of Scotland, it’s hard not to note the rising trend of what’s been dubbed 'box set theatre' by some. “I do think it’s the nature of how we watch things now,” Emanuel says. “On Netflix we can just binge watch the whole of House of Cards – as audiences we’re now allowed to watch things that are big and massive and take time.” However, he doesn’t see this direct influence on his own work, even if it is trickling from our computer screens and onto the stage. “The fact that it's a trilogy is kind of an accident from an artistic point of view. It felt like the play had to be big regardless of whether it was three parts or one. It’s really delightful to be able to do three plays, especially because I feel as a writer you’re always trying to do better, to work out what works and what doesn’t work. We’ll see part one and that will affect how part two happens.”

So if you can commit to four seasons of House of Cards, you can (and should) commit to three years of theatre. The 306:Dawn is set to be an exciting beginning to three important plays. From serious historical focus to the less serious Netflix comparisons, chatting with Emanuel seems much like the plays will be: passionate, insightful, funny and important – with some singing. These productions are not to be missed.

The 306:Dawn, Perth Concert Hall, 24 May-11 June, times vary (arrive one hour before to bus to the venue)