The Berkshire Review in Scotland / Theater

Black Watch from the National Theatre of Scotland

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Black Watch
Black Watch

Black Watch
from the Natonal Theatre of Scotland

Written by Gregory Burke
Director – John Tiffany
Associate Director (movement) – Steven Hoggett
Associate Director (music) – Davey Anderson
Set designed by Laura Hopkins
Costumes designed by Jessica Brettle
Lighting designed by Colin Grenfell
Sound designed by Gareth Fry
Video designed by Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer for Fifty Nine Productions Ltd.

The full cast is: David Colvin, Paul J Corrigan, Ali Craig, Emun Elliott, Jack Fortune, Jonathan Holt, Michael Nardone, Henry Pettigrew, Paul Rattray and Nabil Stuart.

Tour Dates

Warwick Arts Centre, Coventry
24/04/08 – 03/05/08
The Lowry in The Pie Factory, Salford
07/05/08 – 10/05/08
Ebbw Vale Leisure Centre, Blaenau Gwent
15/05/08 – 17/05/08
Prism Theater, Scope Arena, Virginia Arts Festival
24/05/08 – 01/06/08
Luminato Festival, Toronto
06/06/08 – 14/06/08
Barbican Centre, London
20/06/08 – 26/07/08
St Ann’s Warehouse, New York
10/10/08 – 30/11/08

The Iraq War is an infuriating abomination and I am more than happy to see anything that attacks it. I am also, as it happens, not against seeing fine theatre. Therefore, I was delighted to see two birds killed with one stone at the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of the Edinburgh Festival hit Black Watch at the Scottish Exhibition & Conference Centre (SECC) in Glasgow, as the play continues its tour through the UK, and then on to North America. [Since its first performance at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2006 in an unused drill shed, Black Watch has played before sold out audiences and won numerous awards, not only the Fringe First, but South Bank Show Award for Theatre, the Critics’ Circle Awards (to John Tiffany as Best Director) and others. It played to sold-out audiences at St. Ann’s Warehouse,Brooklyn in October-November 2007, and will return there in October 2008. – ed.]

The production is unique in its dynamic approach to theatre and accessibility. Because it is “building-free,” it travels well, each time creating a different experience for a different audience. The primary objective, as always it should be, is to entertain. This is achieved through an interesting integration of acting, singing, dancing, and technical effects. At the SECC, the theatre was set up in a peculiar way, with the stage nestled between two large bleachers running parallel to one another.

The experience began by entering a theatre enveloped by the proud, nationalistic calling of the bagpipes. I felt my upper-lip stiffen, my posture improve, and my chest jut out – ready for anything, except what was to come. This militaristic atmosphere was only reenforced by the orders of the theatre to “refrain from using mobile phones.” The nostalgic patriotism, which Scotland is so familiar with, was brought out further by lighted saltires in abundance, flashing through the space. This was all brilliantly juxtaposed when the actors came on stage, swearing and stomping about in civilian dress, with modern Scottish music (Snow Patrol) blasting in the background. It was clear from then on that the romantics were to be dispersed with and the reality of the Iraq War accepted. Indeed, a major theme of the play seems to be military romanticism vs. reality, a concept reminiscent of the post World War I stage.

Black Watch,” writes Artistic Director, Vicky Featherstone, “started as an assignment – I asked Gregory Burke to follow the story of the soon-to-be-amalgamated Black Watch Regiment in 2004.” The regiment itself is often romantically viewed from an historical context. At their very mention one thinks of the enigmatic dark tartans of green and black, the fierceness of their pipers, and their whole very Scottish nature and identity. The regiment may be regarded symbolic of an idyll, challenged by modern reality, which makes the play all the more dramatically effective in its purpose.

Gregory Burke (above) interviewed a group of veteran soldiers regarding their service in Iraq. The play is the product of these interviews and thus a valuable evaluation of the situation in Iraq, as well as a dramatically invigorating spectacle.

Too much dance can ruin a play, making it gaudy and possibly nauseating. In Black Watch, however, this is not so. The choreography is instead entrancing, bringing the audience into the action, whether it be on the battlefield or in the pool room. The moves enhance the experience greatly, making it an optical masterpiece of sorts.

The players are all praiseworthy, delivering their parts with a certain rawness not common today. They brought out with intensity both the hilarity and horror of the play; something not at all easy to do. They must also be commended on their endurance, as the play does not have an interval and it requires a great deal of physical activity.

Black Watch is a play of immense value as a lesson, not only this generation, but to those that follow as a reminder of the horrors of war. It is the Journey’s End of the 21st century, documenting both the decline of the most revered regiments in history as well as one of the most unpopular wars ever.

(1) As Gregory Burke observed in his author’s note, “There is a cachet to be had from serving in the Black Watch, the oldest Highland regiment. They call it the “Golden Thread”: the connection that runs through the history of the Regiment since its formation. Even today, in our supposedly fractured society, the Regiment exists on a different plane. In Iraq, there were lads serving alongside their fathers. There were groups of friends from even the smallest communities: the army does best in those areas of the country the Ministry of Defence describes as having “settled communities”. The Army does not recruit well in London or any other big city; fighting units tend to be more at home with homogeneity than with metropolitanism or multiculturalism. The central core of the regiment has always been the heartland of Perthshire, Fife, Dundee and Angus.” [back]

For more about Black Watch read Euan Ferguson’s excellent article in the Guardian (April 13, 08), “The real tartan army,” and his interview with Gregory Burke and John Tiffany in the Observer of the same date. [ed.]

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