Commissioned by Tynemouth WW1 Commemoration project, Peter Mortimer’s play Death at Dawn re-examines the 100-year-old controversy of British soldiers being executed during the First World War for military offences, including desertion or cowardice.
Mortimer has had the luxury of time to write and research the play, and this is evident in the spare dialogue and realistic characterisation on show.
Focusing on the real case of North Shields man, William Hunter, who was shot by his own battalion for desertion in 1916, the audience are able to engage with the issue through the narrative of his short life.
Director Jackie Fielding has coaxed some very credible performances from the young ensemble cast too. They really inhabit the characters they portray as well as physically representing gangling, not-quite-formed youth.
Stephen Gregory’s Hunter is arrogant and flawed. Jamie Brown gives a fine performance as poet with a conscience, Private Henry Stevens. Jim English is believable as impressionable young soldier Private Jack White and Dean Logan is convincing in his depiction of soldier Len Smiley’s disintegration from affable young man to broken human being.
Heather Carroll plays several roles convincingly.
The Platoon Sergeant (Matthew Curnier) edges towards caricature at his first appearance but his speech and actions provide a rare humorous scene. Curnier’s sergeant then develops into a man of authoritarian strength who has moments of indecision, even compassion.
However the sergeant’s change in his personal life, and his decision to write a letter to Lord Kitchener is to have huge significance for William Hunter. If there is a contemporary message it is that fate turns on small circumstances.
The devastating effect that Hunter’s death had on his family is explored in the penultimate, agonisingly taut scene between Stevens and Mrs Hunter (Diane Legg). This is a pivotal moment and the audience are drawn into the conflict between whether Stevens should tell Mrs Hunter what really happened to her son, or tell a kinder untruth.
Designer Simon Henderson has created a stark space in which the actors can perform, and the minimalist staging using wooden boxes and ladders works well. The khaki army uniforms offset the blues and pinks of the women’s costumes to good effect. If I’m to criticise the staging at all, it would be that in the final minute of the play the blackout happened slightly too late. But this was an outstanding illumination of events one hundred years ago, and a blunt reminder of a lost generation of young men.