Leave aside your opinions, your analyses, and your political positions, and come join the Black Watch as they go to the sweltering deserts of Iraq, and look war in the face.
It is an experience which is at every moment itself – that is to say, the story of the men of an elite fighting group taken thousands of miles from their native Scotland and dropped amongst the screaming missiles and shuddering mortars of that place. The other parties to the war – insurgents, civilians, strategists – have no voice in this story, although their work is seen everywhere within it. And, though each of the characters has a back story, we never see it: a senior officer (Ian Pirie) reads the letters he writes to his wife, but we never hear her replies, and in one lyrical, searing moment, the company members each silently read sad letters from home. As the news – that a lover has abandoned them, perhaps, or that a beloved uncle has died – the soldiers quietly give themselves up to sorrow, and we see that these men, who would never surrender, have been defeated in their hearts. We never know the precise cause of it, though.
It is the story of Men at War, whose air is scented with the stink of fear, and whose days are filled with a jittery tedium. It is a story of explosive rage, leavened with mordant humor. It is, at bottom, a dance, punctuated by a deep bass line of mortar fire and by percussive, every-other-word curses, in which the partners hold each other protectively (“I fought for my mates,” rather than for England or Scotland, explains poor, damaged Stewarty [Chris Starkie]) but exchange no intimacies (the closest thing to a personal conversation is when they talk about the food they miss – dialogue that eventually turns into fistfights).
If this sounds authentic, that’s because it is: playwright Gregory Burke put it together by interviewing Black Watch alumnae and turning their stories to theater. Indeed, these interviews, taken in a working-class pub in Fife, Scotland, are the frame of the story: a mild-mannered writer (Paul Higgins) asks a half-dozen men, fresh from Iraq, to recount their experiences for the play he is trying to write. The men, who have learned to profoundly mistrust journalists and their pigeonholing tendencies, are skeptical but eventually their desire for a little attention (“Ewan McGregor. He can be me,” volunteers Granty [Richard Rankin]) and the need for the stories to tell themselves overwhelm their resistance, and we are on our way.
We move at a call-and-response pace, as Cammy (Paul Tinto, substituting for Jack Lowden, and doing fine work) takes the lead in answering the writer’s questions, and in so doing conjures up the settings, in Fallujah and elsewhere, where the men of the Black Watch lived the war. He manages to invoke the three-century history of Black Watch in an amusing monologue done at breakneck speed; as he describes the company’s historic battles other actors dress him in the Black Watch uniforms of the time. He introduces us to his fierce buddies Stewarty, Granty, Rossco (Ross Anderson), Macca (Cameron Barnes), Nasby (Stuart Martin), Kenzie (Scott Fletcher) and the insouciant Franz (Jamie Quinn), and to the Sergeant Major (Higgins), who is even fiercer then they are. (After breaking up a fight between two of his men, the Sergeant Major says, “Next time you’ll be fighting me. And you dinnay fucking want tay be daying that,” and his men believe him).
For the men of Black Watch, Iraq is less a war than something that happens to them. They watch in amazement as their American colleagues spend millions in ordinance to demolish empty buildings, but their own experience is mostly spent dodging incoming fire, which is delivered in ear-splitting bursts (Gareth Fry’s sound design, like the play itself, won an Olivier Award in 2009, and deserved to). The senior officer delivers the closest thing to a judgment about the war’s conduct. “And while the insurgents … are particularly adept at vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices,” he tells his wife, “we have never had to face an enemy intent on delivering them suicidally.”
If you go to Black Watch expecting your views on Iraq to be confirmed (or challenged), however, you will be disappointed. Lieutenant Colonel Matt Whitney (Ret.), an Iraq veteran, has written “I fully expected that a foray into the liberal world of theatre could challenge my cadet’s values and cast aspersions on their chosen profession. I could not have been more wrong….by the time the cadets and I emerged from Black Watch we had become better soldiers and better leaders.”
Director John Tiffany stages Black Watch brilliantly, and this terrific young cast carries it out with balletic grace. In its five-year history the National Theatre of Scotland has already established itself as one of the best companies in the world. Black Watch adds to its reputation. While every member of the cast is excellent, it is impossible not to single out the marvelous Higgins, who is the only actor from the original cast. He plays two characters who are so different from each other that he appears to grow three inches and put on thirty pounds when he takes on the character of the Sergeant Major, and he never for a moment drops character, even as he is exiting into the wings.
About two hundred audience members are seated on the stage, and so are thrust even more deeply into the war. But wherever you sit you will see the slam-bang choreography of war (Steven Hoggett is Associate Director for Movement) set to war’s sonorous symphony (Davey Anderson is Associate Director for Music). In the production’s final moments, as the company marches to “The Black Bear” (Barnes is the bagpiper), men fall as their bodies are penetrated by bullets and are helped up and fall again, and we are given, in summary, war’s valor, and its heartbreak.
Directed by John Tiffany
Produced by the National Theatre of Scotland
Presented by Shakespeare Theatre Company
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Running time: One hour, 45 minutes without intermission