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Black Watch

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Editorial Review

'Black Watch' review: Scottish battalion's Iraq story is authentic, astonishing

By Peter Marks
Sunday, January 30, 2011

The thunderous aftershocks of "Black Watch" are not merely those set off by the realistic sounds of mortars and rockets exploding in the convulsed soil of Iraq. No, the jolts delivered in this soul-piercing production by the National Theatre of Scotland also emanate from the propulsive energy of its fierce young Scottish soldiers, clinging to regimental pride as tightly as to their automatic weapons.

By the end of 110 remarkable minutes in Shakespeare Theatre Company's Sidney Harman Hall, I was in tears, moved as much by the enthralling stagecraft as by the virile commitment of the superb, 10-man cast. Director John Tiffany, assisted by experts in movement (Steven Hoggett) and music (Davey Anderson), creates astonishing tableaux, whether depicting warriors in meticulous formation or in the simple act of reading letters from home.

To pass up "Black Watch"- which runs only through Sunday - is to deprive yourself of the theater's most ingenious portrait to date of the war in Iraq and of modern warfare in general. It's not so much the profane verbs and adjectives the soldiers use, in authentically thick Scottish accents; playwright Gregory Burke's dialogue is based on interviews with returning soldiers, and some of it has the by-now-familiar ring of countless other on-the-ground accounts of the combat. It's the ways Tiffany frames these agile bodies in the extreme conditions of war: setting the soldiers' faces alight in the glow of a bombardment, launching the men into fear-purging acrobatics, and, most stunningly, re-creating the horrific aerial ballet of a suicide bombing.

"Black Watch," first developed in 2006, embeds audiences with the storied Scottish regiment of the title, which was deployed to Iraq as part of the coalition force bolstering the American invasion. We get to know not only these loud and restless young volunteers, jettisoned into a conflict they barely understand, but also the stirring history of the Black Watch unit, in its signature dark tartan and sporty tams adorned with red vulture feathers.

The scrappy battalion has fought over the centuries all over the world, from the Crimean War to the Boer War, from Dunkirk to Kosovo; the Iraqi deployment coincided with news of a reorganization that merged it into a larger Scottish fighting force. To give us Black Watch's valorous back story, Tiffany, Hoggett and costume designer Jessica Brettle assemble a marvelous sequence in which a soldier recounts the unit's exploits as other soldiers toss and juggle him, adding and removing the changing features of a Black Watch uniform.

The story of its Iraqi experience - the long stretches of sun-baked boredom interrupted by seconds of bloodcurdling havoc - is revealed here with an admirable lack of commentary. Although "Black Watch" alludes to the ferocious debate the deployment engendered back home, the play belongs to the men themselves. You don't have to be for or against their mission to feel compassion for their sacrifice or exhilaration at their spirit. As a colleague of mine noted, "Black Watch" acknowledges politics without being overtly political.

The scenes alternate between a pub in Scotland, where the young war veterans agree to be interviewed by a writer (Paul Higgins), and in flashbacks, the environs of their headquarters in Iraq, near Fallujah. Many of the youths who join up are portrayed as the lusty, incorrigible types who might drink heavily and start brawls at soccer matches. But the ranks also include heroic types, such as the play's central figure, Cammy (quietly charismatic Jack Lowden), a level-headed lad who is both seduced and repulsed by what he's called on to do.

The play makes clear that the war is a deeply isolating experience for the youths from Fife and Dundee, one of whose defining moments is discovering the target they mistakenly eliminate: a peasant and his donkey. Perched on a scaffolding and watching as American jets in the near distance incinerate an Iraqi settlement of some sort, the amazed young men of "Black Watch" may as well be sitting through "Apocalypse Now." The curiosity of clueless journalists and loved ones at home only intensifies their cynicism, the sense that no words can describe what they've been through.

"What was it like, living in the 'wagon' for so long?" the writer in the pub asks of the days the soldiers spent in armored troop carriers.

"It was all right," comes the fighting men's utterly opaque reply.

"Black Watch" coats their service in striking theatricality, but never in sugar. In its softest interlude, a soldier enters a circle of blue light, holding a packet of letters, as a gorgeous instrumental booms over the sound system. One by one, other soldiers take the remaining letters, peel one away and perform their own series of idiosyncratic hand movements. You're put in mind of an army of intimacies, of the private terms on which a war is also conducted.

No actor shortchanges his character here, but Lowden and a couple of others stand out: Jamie Quinn, as the rambunctious Fraz; and Higgins, as both the coolly detached writer and the unit's highly motivated sergeant in Iraq. Starting, too, with Laura Hopkins's skeletal set, the technical aspects are excellent, especially Gareth Fry's assertive soundscape and Colin Grenfell's emotion-enhancing lighting.

"Black Watch" is an exemplar of the theater pieces from overseas - Britain's "The Great Game: Afghanistan" and Israel's "Return to Haifa" are others - that have been heightening Washingtonians' awareness of the imaginative power that can be harnessed in urgent topical concerns. One hopes they give further encouragement to writers and directors on these shores.

Black Watch by Gregory Burke. Directed by John Tiffany. Associate directors, Steven Hoggett and Davey Anderson; videos, Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer. With Ian Pirie, Richard Rankin, Ross Anderson, Chris Starkie, Cameron Barnes, Stuart Martin, Scott Fletcher. About 1 hour 50 minutes.

'Black Watch' offers a frontline view of the war

By Lavanya Ramanathan
Thursday, January 20, 2011

Scottish playwright Gregory Burke made a calculated omission as he penned his Iraq War drama "Black Watch" in 2006: "Saddam" is never uttered, and neither Tony Blair nor any Iraqis make an appearance.

There was nothing new, Burke reasoned, in exhuming newspaper headlines, preaching to audiences about things they already knew.

"I didn't want to write a play about thugs in uniform or little boys being led to the slaughter by these cruel evil generals and politicians," Burke said recently by phone from Scotland. "Those are both things that have been done before.

"Soldiers aren't political. They're like, 'I don't care.' " That's their professional attitude: 'I don't care whether you're black, white, Arab, Protestant or Catholic. If you point a gun at me, you're my enemy.' "

It was such frontline humanity, not politics, that Burke became consumed with capturing in "Black Watch," which arrives Wednesday for a short run at Shakespeare Theatre's Sidney Harman Hall. A docu-play of sorts, "Black Watch" was inspired by Scotland's famed Black Watch military regiment, which lost three men in a roadside bombing in Iraq in 2004, a defeat soon followed by news that the elite unit, which had fought since the 18th century, was being disbanded.

It was the new National Theatre of Scotland that enlisted Burke to explore the incident for a potential play, just as hundreds of young Black Watch troops were leaving Iraq's Camp Dogwood and resuming their lives in tiny fishing villages and mining towns. Burke, who had grown up in just such a town, knew where he'd find them: at the pub.

"That's the way to meet anyone in Scotland," Burke said, "at the pub, when football is on the telly." To get in with a group of Black Watchers from Fife, he enlisted a female researcher to make the initial contact. "She genuinely was a very, very pretty English girl," he jokes now. "It was a honeytrap." (The experience is just one real-life occurrence in the play.)

Burke started visiting regularly, recording the stories. "It wasn't an interview really," he said. "Once they've had a few drinks, they start talking about the things that happened, and the things they did."

What they shared with Burke was revelatory. Nearly 300 collective years of battle hadn't prepared the Black Watch for what they'd experience at Camp Dogwood: heat, boredom and monotony, a ceaseless shower of mortar fire. And worse, they weren't sure why they were there.

"It's almost an existential form of warfare: 'We're fighting this war because we are,'" Burke said. "For the soldiers, 'If someone could explain what we're doing here' is the kind of gallows humor of it all."

Burke quickly began to write "Black Watch," and the show began to take shape during rehearsals in June 2006. Director John Tiffany, movement director Steven Hoggett and others added boisterous fight songs and stark lighting; a real Black Watch sergeant assisted with choreography; and the show emerged as a physical piece of theater.

The play flits between scenes from the pub in Scotland (where an interviewer has come to talk with the soldiers, just as Burke did) and flashbacks to Camp Dogwood, an outpost in a particularly dangerous region of Iraq. (A warning: The play, written in the voices of young military men, is peppered with crude language and cruder jokes.)

The show's first performance was at the Edinburgh Fringe. Before the three-week stint was up, the company had decided to tour, taking the show to New Zealand, Australia, Ireland and Los Angeles, among other big cities. In New York, every ticket for the first run in 2007 was snapped up, and the second run was extended by nearly a month. The performances in Washington - which for Shakespeare Theatre follow last summer's successful production of another war drama, "The Great Game" - will kick off a longer U.S. tour of "Black Watch."

While creating "Black Watch," Burke thought the play would primarily be an elegy of sorts, chronicling the last days of the regiment. But in the intervening years, as the show travels the world - and as soldiers continue to die - that has somehow faded into the background.

Now, Burke said, "it's much more about how - and I think this applies to Afghanistan as well - these wars seem to be perpetual. There's no clear point where they know what they're doing, then there's never a point where you know where it's over as well."