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

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 30, 2011; 10:10 PM

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. Through Sunday at Sidney Harman Hall, 610 F St. NW. Call 202-547-1122 or visit www.shakespearetheatre.org.


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