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.