There was a phase in the development of modern theatre when, under the guidance of Gordon Craig and other innovators, the aim was to find inspiration in puppet theatre, to study and reproduce the mechanics of movement and the fixity of character of puppets.
I have no reason to believe that director Jemina Levick had anything of this sort in mind for this new work, The 306: Day, but something in the distinctive style of this invigorating production, in the choreography, the bustle and busyness of performance and the author’s decision not to probe too deeply into character brought these ideals forcefully to mind.
This is not to belittle the skills or achievements of the actors, who act to the highest of standards, who provide some achingly moving moments of human drama and who by their ensemble performance provide insights into one of history’s darker moments, giving often painful glimpses of slices of lives. However, the theatrical emphasis is on chorality, not individuality. The mainly female cast are each dressed in uniform costumes of cloth bonnets, grey blouses and trousers neatly buttoned up the back. They do not remain quite anonymous, but are not required or permitted to develop as single characters. Nor do they play one part throughout. They come together to chant, converse, bang drums, shout, declaim, march, demonstrate, then separate to assume the role of members of a family, colleagues in a workplace, protesters or police officers. They shift in and out of character with the same dexterity they show moving about in the performance space.
Writer Oliver Emanuel has structured his work as a series of sketches set in Glasgow during World War I. The frame is narrow, meaning that the spectator receives the kind of experience felt when peering at certain surviving scenes in a mosaic which is known to depict a much bigger drama but which has crumbled. The scenes themselves retain their dark vividness, showing some people, mainly women, living out their lives as victims of a tragedy which is being played out elsewhere. They were initially at a loss over how to react or even comprehend fully their situation, so paradoxically the viewer is better equipped than they. The people in the stalls are moved to pity in part by the tales told and the suffering displayed, and in part by prior knowledge of the wider tragedy.
The year is 1917. The war has been under way for years, so the impression is of chancing on events which have been unfolding for some time. We are on the fringes of history. Echoes from elsewhere are faintly heard. In their hatred of war and devastation, the women pick up news that someone called Lenin had arrived back in Russia. Could it be true that he made his famous journey to St Petersburg with the assistance of the Kaiser? Could hope be placed in such a man, or was his part in the story simply another false dawn? Where does hope lie? What can women in the west of Scotland do?
The 306 of the title indicates the distant tragedy, since it refers to the number of British soldiers shot by the army for cowardice in the course of what was once called the Great War. Contemporary poets, like Siegfried Sassoon or Wilfred Owen, and subsequent historians, novelists and theatre people like Joan Littlewood with the now classic work, Oh What a Lovely War!, have radically altered perceptions of that conflict, exposing it as a scar in the European conscience in the way that the Second World War never has become. It is now not even clear why it was fought at all. Did Europe sleep walk into mass slaughter, as Christopher Clark suggested in a recent book?
Emanuel’s trilogy of works, of which this is the second, does not aim to face such questions but his plays can be seen as an admirable if slight contribution to a continuing war of words over that conflict. There may be little more to be said about a war in which, according to some estimates, up to nine million combatants and an incalculable number of civilians fell victim. The play does not pose new questions, nor probe the grand issues but it does what theatre does more poignantly and incisively than any other medium: it examines the impact of global strife on the lives of the little people, shines light on unfamiliar corners and dramatizes the tragedy not of the captains and kings but of the ordinary people left to cope with the impact of decisions made in the ministries and chancelleries in the capitals. The first work in the series focused directly on the men in the trenches, and the new work explores the lives of the women on the so-called home front.
What the women left at home will not do is remain silent and inert. The front page of the programme has a curiously inappropriate image of a woman in factory outfit but with a gag covering her mouth. The women featured in the play refuse to be gagged. They may have a sense that the determining events are occurring elsewhere, on the continent of Europe, but these women are not passive, nor are they deferential to the system which has brought this catastrophe about. They take over the jobs done in factories in peace time by their menfolk.
Although there are only five women and one man on stage, the multiplicity of roles they adopt show their suffering when facing the indifferent, casual cruelty of bureaucrats armed with books of rules. The women here are divided in their sense of duty. Some develop a political consciousness, while carrying on in the domestic and industrial sphere, but here is no romanticism over complete female solidarity. Some bicker over tea with their more feisty colleagues on questions of loyalty and the justification of denouncing the war the men are engaged on, while others are not above silently snooping on protesters.
With high irony, but drawing on historical fact, Oliver shows the women employed in a munitions factory, building bombs and armaments which can only prolong and spread suffering. In those dire times, there was little choice. Food had to be earned, and the plight of those who depended on state handouts was dire. None was more aware of the contradiction than Nellie, whose plucky defiance is subtly conveyed by Dani Heron. Her husband (Steven Miller, whose part is left in shadows) is in jail as a conscientious objector, employed in the manufacture of coffins and inept at dialogue during periods of visit from his wife. Nellie’s plight is central. She pays the price for becoming an activist in the Women’s Peace Campaign, when she is betrayed by some of her colleagues and sees her house invaded by a force of policewomen, leading to her being dragged off, strip-searched and imprisoned.
Others fare as badly in different ways. Gertrude (Amanda Wilkin) queues for a pension she is due after the death of her husband, but her name does not figure in the lists held in the offices. The official grows insolent, while those behind her in the line are impatient and threatening. The hunger that she and her children have to endure is not their concern, or at least not at that moment.
Mrs Byers hovers on the verge of insanity, waiting for news of her son, who had been executed for desertion. She had been officially and mercilessly informed of his fate, and hears it repeated by her exasperated daughter, but suppresses it into some deep area of her subconscious. Fletcher Mathers is excellent in portraying the useless chirpiness of the character as she wonders when word will come and when her son will walk in through the door.
The atmosphere in this work is dark, an impression heightened by the sombre music composed by Gareth Williams and played by Robert Irvine on the cello and Laura McIntosh on the piano. The songs are more reminiscent of operatic recitativo than numbers in a musical. It is a pity that the words in choral recitals are not always clear. Some times, a few, plain words are enough. ‘I’m sorry to tell you,’ begins a letter from official sources, and the shock of the simple words repeated by successive singers is overwhelming. A bewigged judge on the bench delivers the sentence on an anti-war protester by breaking unexpectedly into subdued song.
‘We are growing stronger’, runs the final number. Well, maybe… No doubt some will find parallels with dilemmas discussed in the headlines of today’s press, but this is not really a play for today. There is no reason why it should be. The will to probe and keep alive memories of other times is a deep human need, and helps prevent modern minds from being marooned in the present. The women from that time showed a spirit which deserves to be respected, and perhaps recaptured.
The production is not designed for conventional stages. I saw it in the Station Hotel in Perth, in a room which is plainly part of a function suite, with the restricted audience seated on all four sides, a setting which invites the spectators to feel participants. The props, or scenery, are few and adaptable, being mainly wooden-plank tables which can serve as factory production lines, pub or kitchen tables where gossip, rumour or anger can be exchanged, and also as platforms from which speeches can be delivered and finally as surfaces on which women march on demonstrations. Behind the audience, panels have been erected which the performers bang to create hubbub when stillness is liable to descend, which is infrequent.
The production is further proof of Scotland’s National Theatre success in its various missions. It takes theatre to venues outside the normal circuit, and it incorporates the strengths of other companies into the works it produces. I am not sure what contribution Perth Theatre made to this new work, but it is good to see their name kept prominent during the restorations of their home base. Stellar Quines is mainly concerned with highlighting women’s issues, as is being done here, while Red Ensemble is establishing its reputation for the variety and excellence of its musical performances.