Playwright Gregory Burke’s intense and electrifying Black Watch manages to capture the valorous romance, raw humanity and transcendent camaraderie of soldiers in combat while simultaneously searing the experience with the tragic, brutal truths borne of war.
Lyrical and hard-hitting, jocular and upsetting in equal measure, Black Watch is a deeply honest examination of the culture of soldiering, a portrait of the emotional and mental effects of war on warriors, and a vivid representation of the enormous disconnect between the minority of those who serve in a professional army in wartime and the majority who casually check up on them from positions far removed.
Ultimately, it’s an ode to men in war and a stark reminder that wars of this kind—“they didn’t invade us, we invaded them and fucked their day up,” one soldier says—are not worth the sacrifices exacted from those who fight them.
The great distance between the pomp and the reality is demonstrated in the production’s opening moments. You’re escorted to your seat as pipes wail, drums beat out a martial tattoo and spotlights swoop and arc, emblazoning the spare stage with Scotland’s Saint Andrew’s cross. It feels like the prelude to a rock concert celebrating the illustrious 300-year-old pageant of the Celtic Black Watch unit known for taking up arms throughout the world from Canada to India and Waterloo to Kosovo in their signature black tartan skirts and red vulture feathers.
But it is not that. Instead, the music is cut off and the lights go dark but for a single spot where a lone young man self-consciously appears in a leather jacket and jeans, sheepishly looks around the hall and utters “Alright.” This story is going to be about the men themselves, and not the mythic grand view.
After a sold-out run in 2011 at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Sidney Harman Hall, the National Theatre of Scotland’s extraordinary return engagement of Black Watch presents a hypnotic spectacle of sensory theatre, by turns poetic, abstract and exhilarating. A theatrical docudrama based on interviews conducted with former members of the legendary regiment, memories of dead comrades and the surreal experience of war in a foreign land become undeniable physical realities as the play segues between preservative post-combat recollections and in-the-moment exhibitions of the call of duty in 2004 Iraq.
The drama is seamlessly overlain by expressionistic interludes that build on its themes: Scottish ballads and folk dances suggestive of the primal connection with distant generations; governmental and military sound bites providing political context; and set pieces that distill the history and martial romance of the “Gallant Forty Twa,” formed in the 18th century to police the country’s Highlands.
The events of the play are especially pointed in the U.K., where the unit was at the center of a political controversy in 2004 after the United States requested British forces augment U.S. Marines in an attack on the powder keg Fallujah, and where, in November, three of their number and an interpreter were killed by a suicide car bomber.
Although Black Watch alludes to the politics surrounding war, the play gratefully, is non-political. It is not preachy, sensationalistic nor overly sentimental. There is no fierce sense of injustice or righteousness. This non-judgmental frankness leaves the audience to be assailed only by the unflinching empathy and honesty of the writing, a true blessing for an industry that often takes pleasure in interpreting and positioning hot-button issues for its patrons.
The 10-man ensemble cast is phenomenal. The actors, to a man, invest their characters with keen and honest individuality; as a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and Army myself, I can tell you that the language and relationships between the men, their superiors and civilians are cut true. The stolid stoicism, dippy banter and gallows humor are all captured with a profane grace.
The entire ensemble deserved the standing ovation received on press night, but individual acknowledgements must be addressed: the play’s central figure, Cammy, quietly but confidently imbued by Ryan Fletcher, is superb as our conduit inside the closed-off circle of the squad; Chris Starkie frightens and elicits sympathy as the suffering Stewarty; and Robert Jack does a standout job as both the out of place civilian interlocutor and the unit’s motivated sergeant.
The story of Black Watch is all too familiar to anyone who’s served in combat—long stretches of “hurry up and wait” interrupted by bursts of heart-pounding terror. Accompanied by Colin Grenfell’s lighting, Gareth Fry’s sound design, the music direction of Davey Anderson and the movement direction of Steven Hoggett, the production attains cinematic distinction.
And like any war film worth its salt, Black Watch has some stunning set pieces:
There’s a bravura sequence in which the history of the Black Watch is dictated through a continuous narrative by Cammy as he is dressed and undressed and dressed again in the regiment’s uniforms from throughout the centuries.
Another fantastically realized scene has our boys watching the war like bystanders, literally lounging on bleacher-like scaffolding, as U.S. forces pulverize Fallujah from the air. The fellas snap pictures, crack jokes and look on in amazement, as if watching a Hollywood film, characteristically the way European armed forces witness the U.S. conduct war.
The choreography throughout is mesmerizing, from the silent tableau in which each member of the Black Watch receives a letter at mail call, reads it, and then begins a personal sign language evoking some secret tender longing, to the martial ballet in which the men purge their tension by wrestling one another in a pugilistic frenzy to the rousing finale in which military drill blends with syncopated stagecraft, the squad’s ranks repeatedly broken by fallen comrades and made right again by the helping hands of their collective spirit.
Criticisms of what is otherwise a phenomenal piece of theater include a desire for more elaboration into the characters, as in more enlightening exchanges between them, or maybe a look at their back stories. There is a lot of physical interaction in this production and some of it needed tweaking for perfection. Also, the physical movement scenes become gratuitous, eating up much time that could have been used to provide more insight or laughs or just to further the story along.
The National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch is thunderclap and lightning strike, abounds with energy and truth, filth and fury laced with poetry. It ends as it began, in a clamor, all pounding drums and blasting pipes, remindful of foolish courage and tragic loss. It is a show that must be experienced.
Black Watch by Gregory Burke, directed by John Tiffany. Featuring Ryan Fletcher, Richard Rankin, Adam McNamara, Chris Starkie, Cameron Barnes, Gavin Jon Wright, Robert Jack, Scott Fletcher, Andrew Fraser and Stephen McCole. Set Designer: Laura Hopkins, Costume Designer: Jessica Brettle, Lighting Designer: Colin Grenfell, Sound Designer: Gareth Fry, Video Design: Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer, Associate Director (Movement): Steven Hoggett, Associate Director (Music): Davey Anderson, Associate Movement Director: Vicki Manderson. Casting Director: Anne Henderson, Stage Manager: Joseph Smelser. Produced by National Theatre of Scotland. Presented by Shakespeare Theatre Company. Reviewed by Roy Maurer.