‘Black Watch’s’ experiment in war poetry is a play in athleticism


Dress rehearsal of ‘Black Watch’ at Shakespeare Theatre. The show with the ensemble of the National Theatre of Scotland is based on interviews conducted by Gregory Burke with former soldiers who served in Iraq. It reveals what it means to be part of the legendary Scottish regiment the Black Watch while serving in the war against terror. (Astrid Riecken/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
September 28, 2012

John Tiffany is agitated. His hands are waving around. He’s sputtering about something and you can’t yet make out what it is, but one thing is clear: This man who’s just come off a flight from London is the most animated person in the cafe. And he hasn’t even sat down yet.

Tiffany, the Tony-winning British director of Broadway’s “Once,” is in town to oversee rehearsals of the physical-theater production of “Black Watch,” by the National Theatre of Scotland, which he also directed. On a recent evening, Tiffany, 40, bobs across the courtyard of the Hotel Monaco with an aspect at once flabbergasted and mischievous. Wearing a leather jacket and wine-red jeans, he bears a passing resemblance to a younger, artsier Bruce Willis with his every-guy looks, tight smile and eyes on the lookout for a joke.

Tiffany seems to be holding back a laugh even as he’s griping about the sudden discovery that his bank has frozen his credit card account. An assistant gently breaks in to ask what he’ll have to drink. Sparkling water okay?

“Nonononono,” Tiffany protests, shooting out a hand. “I’ll have a latte. Nonono wait — make it an espresso. With lots of foam!”

Caffeine for this man, really? Just sitting next to him is pretty invigorating. And not just because now he’s racing through his theatrical history, touching on his early love of “West Side Story” (age 13, he was a Jet); his fascination with Michael Jackson and MTV; his dislike of Shakespeare; his discovery of avant-gardists Robert LePage and Peter Brook, directors whose works roiled with raw physicality and the surreal, and then . . .


John Tiffany is directing ‘Black Watch’ at the Shakespeare Theatre. (Astrid Riecken/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

“Suddenly I went ‘Ah!’ ” Tiffany exclaims, underscoring the turning point with a slurp of espresso. “That felt much closer to the musicals that I did when I was young. I got really turned on by that.”

“Sorry,” he adds, swiping a bit of airborne milk froth off the table with a finger. “I’m spattering.”

Never mind. Tiffany’s style is to show as much as tell. He throws his arms out wide as he recalls the mind-blowing theater and dance he saw in 1990 when troupes from all over the world poured into Glasgow, that year’s European Capital of Culture. Tiffany, who blames Shakespeare for killing his teenage passion for theater, had left his native Yorkshire to study medicine there.

“Now, Shakespeare and me have made friends,” he says. “But you do need to work in order to understand him. Whereas movement, you don’t. It’s instant, it’s straight in there.” He strikes his chest with a fist. “Certainly the kind of movement and music thatI’m interested in working with.

“There’s something very democratic about that, and that’s what I love about it.”

This brings us to “Black Watch,” the athletic movement play about the experiences of 10 soldiers from Scotland’s Black Watch regiment who fought with the British Army in the Iraq war. The script by Gregory Burke draws on his interviews with some of the soldiers back home in their neighborhood pub, along with newspaper reports of their service and e-mails from one of the officers.

But just as important to the play as the text are the fight songs the Black Watch has sung throughout its existence; its traditional pipe and drum music, and — most especially — the actors’ movement, at times brutal, balletic, secretive or sprawling. With the excitable, fit-looking Tiffany as its director — a man who swims a mile for fun —it’s no wonder the play has such energy.

Seeing “Black Watch” now, it feels natural that this treatment of battle, boredom and brotherhood unspools with the aid of ruggedly rhythmic choreography. With its drills and parades, what is the military if not one of the world’s great treasuries of movement, music and spectacle?

Tiffany credits the music (directed by Davey Anderson) and movement for the global success of “Black Watch.” Presented by the Shakespeare Theatre, the play is following its sold-out 2011 run at Sidney Harman Hall with a return stop, as part of a national tour. It runs at the Harman through Oct. 7.

But at the play’s 2006 premiere at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, no one thought this experiment in war poetry — part musical theater, part magic realism and part docudrama — was destined to last.

“It sounds a bit perverse since it’s been so successful,” says Steven Hoggett, the play’s associate director and choreographer, “but me and John were incredibly unsure about it when it was first created.” They staged it in a concrete hangar, specially chosen so the audience could sit on two sides, facing each other as the action occurred in the middle, the way you’d watch a military parade.

That configuration has endured. (At the Harman, some of the audience members are seated at the rear of the stage.) But at the time, the festival producers said it would make the play unlikely to tour standard theaters, “so you might as well make the show of your lives, take every risk you want,” Hoggett, 40, recalls, speaking by phone from his home in London. “We all had this attitude that we’d go all out and not worry about the consequence. . . . It would be a one-off.”

So what the heck — in went a nine-minute fashion show. It’s a brusque, muscular bit of choreography, in which one of the soldiers recites centuries of Black Watch history as his buddies swiftly dress and undress him in a display of how the uniforms have evolved over time. They drag him, flip him, swing him by his armpits and hoist him overhead like a roll of carpet as they tie on his jabot, pull up and yank off his hose, swathe him in various kilts, slap on his tam-o’-shanter and finally, after most visible traces of Highland dress have been stripped off, they truss him up in desert fatigues and lace up his boots.

Tiffany and Hoggett, friends from childhood and longtime collaborators (they teamed up again for the musical “Once”), had in mind a human version of the Scottish military demonstrations in which soldiers take apart and reassemble a cannon in minutes. But the sequence also brings to mind uncomfortable notions of control and possession of one’s own body, which is wrested from the soldiers the moment they don the very gear that’s being celebrated.

Another experiment, which Hoggett says was the trickiest on a creative level, is a series of 10-second fights in which the pent-up energies and emotions of young, traumatized men erupt in a sea of limbs. A pair wrestles on a table; one of the actors dives off in a back somersault. They fling each other over their backs, roll and lunge on the floor. One man spirals through the air like a plume of smoke.

“We wanted it to be slightly balletic, but we didn’t want it to be beautiful. We kept dialing it up and dialing it down,” Hoggett says.

The miracle of this play is that the most emotional moments are wordless. Take the scene in which the soldiers silently open letters from home, and each man, standing apart in his own circle of shadows, glides his hands through idiosyncratic gestures that read like a sign language of the heart. One soldier’s fingers move as if counting months, then flutter into stillness, as if time were flowing through them like sand. This scene, inexplicably moving, started out as a warm-up exercise.

“We did it very quickly,” Hoggett says. He asked each actor to write a letter to himself from an imagined lover, wife or child, and the actors devised their own gestures to echo the written sentiments. They were told not to show anyone their letters nor put words to the movements.

“It’s important to us that it’s not a mimed section of the show, and it needs to stay very personal to make sense,” Hoggett says.

Another point that can get the tear ducts working is the fractured version of regimental marches at the end. While bagpipes wail, the soldiers, whom the audience has come to know as fiery, confused and brokenhearted boys, hustle to shape themselves into the massed, anonymous flag-bearers of tradition — an outward uniformity made more poignant by the wounds they bear inside, and whose impact we have not only witnessed but have felt.

Clearly, a great deal is demanded of these actors. The craziest thing the creative team asked them to do?

“Stop eating chips. Stop drinking beer,” quips Hoggett. “That went down very badly, but they all did it.

“What we had when we started were 10 boys, half of them skinny, scrawny things and half of them overweight. We had to put them on a strict regime.”

That includes two hours of physical training and pilates a day.

“It takes a lot of strength, stamina and flexibility,” acknowledges actor Chris Starkie, in a break from rehearsals. He plays Stewarty, the unit’s hothead. “It changed my body.”

Tiffany says one of the most important things he looks for when casting the show is courage — the courage to be an athlete.

“I often get surprised at actors who think acting is just saying things,” he marvels. “Theater is about being an athlete. And a musician. And not just for musicals, not just for Broadway. That should be a part of every theater.

“It’s a very Western thing, this supremacy of the playwright,” he continues. “You go into the traditions of Indian, African, Japanese and Chinese theater, and it’s live. It’s about not being a naturalistic television play or film. . . . I don’t know why we’ve decided on being naturalistic and static.”

Fallout from Method acting? He takes another gulp of espresso, ponders the influence of Russian director Constantin Stanislavski and American teacher Lee Strasberg.

“It seems to have dominated British and American theater for too long, I think.”

He’s glad to have sidestepped the standard, less physically involved aspects of theater. Back when he and Hoggett were growing up, in the Yorkshire city of Huddersfield, where there was little live theater, “Paula Abdul’s choreography for Janet Jackson . . . was as avant-garde as it got for us,” Tiffany says, “and we were happy with that.” He breaks into laughter.

“Those things were as formative for us as Ibsen and Chekhov.”

The two men developed a singular mash-up aesthetic, mixing the fast pace and punchy moves of music videos with the wild experimental theater of LePage and Brook, as well as such other influences as New York’s offbeat, multimedia Wooster Group and the expressionistic dance-theater of Pina Bausch. In the loud, rough ballad of “Black Watch,” this charged physical language has the eloquence of verse.

And as Tiffany and Hoggett will be the first to say, there’s something delicious about their childhood TV obsession becoming the great-granddaddy of this premier export of British theater.

“What’s quite interesting is as soon as you legitimize those experiences — ’cause of course it’s just MTV, and you know, there’s a real snobbery about that — people go, ‘R eally? Madonna’s “Vogue” video, you think that’s a valid influence?’ . . . You go, well, [to heck] then,” says Tiffany, leaning back with a grin and throwing up his hands. “This is as valid and legitimate an influence as anything else.”

Black Watch

by Gregory Burke. Directed by John Tiffany. Movement, Steven Hoggett; music, Davey Anderson; sets, Laura Hopkins; lighting, Colin Grenfell; sound, Gareth Fry; costumes, Jessica Brettle; video, Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer. With Adam McNamara, Andrew Fraser, Richard Rankin, Chris Starkie, Cameron Barnes, Gavin Jon Wright, Scott Fletcher. About 1 hour 50 minutes. Through Oct. 7 at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. Call 202-547-1122 or visit www.shakespearetheatre.org.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, church basements, fairground tents and lawn chairs, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it.
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