Shock and awe, ringing ears, and profuse swearing – key elements that made the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Black Watch simply captivating.
I know what you’re thinking, nothing is that good, these statements are like the drivel on film posters “A Must See!!!” or “Two Thumbs Up.” In this instance, the production (it’s more than a play, and I certainly wouldn’t detract from it by calling it a musical) in parts rivals the impact one would get at a screening of an action film. It’s the real deal, and as one of the reviews said, “Beg, steal or borrow to get yourself a ticket,” The News of the World.
From the moment of seating in the Sidney Harman Hall at the Shakespeare Theatre, one is in the midst of the action, loud bagpipes play and roboscans fill the stage; which I would characterise as abbreviated in the round, audience seating behind what would be the traditional proscenium, and also in the expected area in front of the stage. With the troops wagon on stage right and scaffolding on either side, one had a real sense of depth on an otherwise bare stage. Suspension of disbelief was not an issue here.
Using remarkably simple staging, the production characterized the two scenes – the theatre of war in Iraq and a pool hall in Fife, Scotland. The young cast of Scots fit the bill exactly as one would imagine the returned Veterans of The Black Watch to appear – crass, fiercely protective, and fucked up from multiple tours in multiple countries doing a job they didn’t necessarily understand, sometimes as political pawns.
An emotional journal ensues as one gets to know the soldiers, in particular Cammy, the lead protagonist who is the reason for the story being told. Beyond the choreography, one sees how the unit develops their cohesion, in one particularly captivating scene, the soldiers, Sergeant and officer receive their Bluey, and one by one react and respond, almost in sign.
In one monologue (by this point in the production between the swearing and use of physical acting I see Berkoff as an inspiration) using exceptional choreography and physical interaction with his fellow soldiers, Camm, takes us through the battles, tours and uniforms of The Black Watch and the Red Heckle feather.
One particularly bittersweet element this production reminisced on was about the loss of The Black Watch as a three hundred year history was swept away, for, as the officer notes, kids weren’t signing up to join wars that are unjust in far away places:
On 28 March 2006 The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment) was merged with other Scottish Infantry Battalions to form the Royal Regiment of Scotland.
As the production crescendos, with concert loud music, strobes and ultimately the climax of the IED, the heart races and then it hits you. These boys were out there, in the middle of a desert, with a half copy of Lawrence of Arabia (the book’s never as good as the fil’m) living in the back of an armoured wagon and without the understanding of why, they, their country and their brothers in arms are there. It wasn’t because Scotland or the UK was under attack, they are the invaders, the bullies, not doing the good or liberating as they did in Bosnia or elsewhere, and more than anything, they were peacekeeping and developing relationships with the locals – whatever the fuck that is – instead of fighting wars that they were trained for. They weren’t prepared or sent with adequate resources to deal with psychotic suicide bombers, IEDs or other threats they came across.
Back at the pool hall, the evidence of PTSD was particularly salient, manifesting itself through violence, booze or depression.
I felt for these boys, they didn’t fight for the greater good, their country, their Army, but their brigade, and ultimately, their mates. Why else would one charge into battle if not for one’s mate?
I will be interested to see how American audiences react from the political and patriotic perspective, plus the language side. It was the closest in terms of language to Trainspotting (and it includes the obligatory references to Ewan McGregor) I have seen, and Black Watch isn’t shy about making statements. That said, the audience at my screening was rapt.