JOHN Foster’s gripping play Shot at Dawn tells the story of two soldiers from the Dorchester Regiment, one an officer, the other a private, on trial for cowardice during the First World War.
Although the characters themselves are the products of the playwright’s imagination, what they had to say was real enough, the actual text, the result, no doubt, of considerable research, being drawn from letters, diaries and other first-hand accounts, including actual trial transcripts. With well-paced and gut wrenching clarity, the unfolding drama revealed how the two young men, suffering from what we now recognise as post-traumatic stress disorder, were executed by firing squad for their perceived disloyalty.
Foster’s thoughtful and compelling courtroom drama presents a rather different slant on the War from anything many of us will have seen before. As he explains: “The Great War is currently well documented and life in the trenches depicted in often harrowing detail. Most narratives focus on the heroism of soldiers, the incompetence of the commanders and the futility of war.
“Shot at Dawn tells a different story. A stain on the memory of many soldiers who served remained until 2006 when a general pardon was issued by the British Government to 360 British and Commonwealth soldiers who had been summarily court martialled for cowardice and shot at dawn.”
Staged in the evocative surroundings of Dorchester’s Old Crown Court, the very room where the Tolpuddle Martyrs were tried in 1834 and (I was told) undecorated since 1904, the venue gave the proceedings a strong sense of authenticity. Shell-shocked and shattered, our two soldiers, and, tragically, many others like them, were tried without jury or any right of appeal.
Under the accomplished direction of Kirstie Davis, the play was presented by a cast of just three, each of whom played a variety of smaller roles in addition to their main character.
Andrew Wheaton, as the senior officer presiding over the courts martial, gave a fine, dignified performance. Under orders himself, as the outcome of any proven intention to desert gave him no room for leniency, he was totally convincing. Yes, he was frighteningly cold, and yes, he was ruthless, but in addition you sensed his awareness that he was condemning good men to death. The build up to the sentence passed on the young private was stunning.
As the two unfortunate soldiers, Adam Jessop (Private Squire) and Zachary Powell (Second Lieutenant Jarvis) gave similarly polished performances, particularly in those scenes where we witnessed their humiliation and emotional breakdown under the intensity of the prosecution. Although the play itself was only 60 minutes long, we had come to know and respect these two men and cared deeply for their predicament. The smaller roles, too, were well drawn and contained some evocative testimony from fellow soldiers, civilian witnesses and, of course, so-called experts.
Dorchester’s Old Crown Court has a fine acoustic which helped the production enormously, and the use of the actual space was imaginative and wholly successful. For obvious practical reasons the lighting design was fairly simple, but it worked well, flashbacks, court scenes and changes of role usually being accompanied by a quick change of lights.
Although there was some very atmospheric use of background music at certain key moments in the play, I was less sure about the recorded sound effects. My reservations were almost certainly brought about because one particular “live” sound was SO good – the drumming of the senior officer’s fingers on his lectern. This was both the rain outside and the man’s impatience with the proceedings; it added considerably to the intensity of the drama and was absolutely right.
Doppelganger Productions, led by John Foster, is a not-for-profit theatre company based in Bournemouth. With a focus on Dorset-based playwrights, the company aims to promote new work by both established and emerging writers. This touring production, which has received national as well as local funding, is being performed in a series of historic courtrooms throughout Dorset – venues that reinforce the stark reality that the soldiers were denied any form of legal representation.
If you missed it at Dorchester, you can catch it at Bridport Town Hall (21st and 22nd April), Blandford Corn Exchange (29th and 30tj April) or Poole Guildhall on the 4th and 5th May. Further information is available from the venues or via the website: www.doppelgangerproductions.com