by Gregory Burke
Dir. John Tiffany
National Theatre of Scotland
St. Ann’s Warehouse, Brooklyn, October 25th, 2008
Gregory Burke’s Black Watch, the sensation of the 2006 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, has returned to Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse this fall after its highly successful (and all too brief) appearance last season. The current run has already been extended to December 21st. You should hurry and get your tickets.
The show is a fascinating one for U.S. audiences. While it can certainly be classified as an Iraq War play, it deals with that conflict in a manner both familiar and foreign. On one level it tells a story reminiscent of earlier war plays (and films): we get to know a group of soldiers, with its traditions, internal conflicts, motley recruits, surly but decent higher-ups. A considerable part of the action is taken up by inaction: reading mail, filling time, one-upping each other, watching American bombing runs. While no Americans appear in the play, they are very much a presence. Scotland’s fabled Black Watch regiment (“The Gallant Forty Twa”) has been sent to northern Iraq to support the U.S. troops planning an assault on Fallujah. The play veers back and forth between past and present, between Camp Dogwood in Iraq and a pub back home (where the soldiers are interviewed by a writer). In one key scene, the members of the regiment simply stare in disbelief, hilarity, and horror at a U.S. attack in the distance, during which alarmingly realistic jet noises pass over their heads, and, seemingly, ours. The stunning display of firepower leads to a brief debate over war tactics, the upshot of which is “it’s good to be the bully.” (Someone else interjects, “This is too fucking much though ay?”) Some of the play’s concerns and references are more local: we hear repeatedly, for instance, of the planned amalgamation of the Black Watch with other Scottish regiments, and a sense of impending loss runs through the piece. (This issue surely resonated more deeply with a more Scottish audience.)
The author and director (John Tiffany) made a crucial early decision regarding the staging of the play –this before they had a script. The performance space would be an esplanade, with the audience on two sides of a long “parade ground,” at the ends of which are towers of scaffolding on which the soldiers sit, hang, and climb. (The original production was at a former Drill Hall in Edinburgh). On the towers are flat screens, playing, alternately, the camp’s CCTV and the pub’s football games. The long central space allows for a great deal of movement back and forth (marching, running, dancing) and for simultaneous action at both ends of the space. The playbill indicates that this production of Black Watch required an Associate and Assistant Director for Movement (Steven Hoggett and Andrew Panton) and the careful attention to action and interaction is always evident. Audience members must swivel their heads, and can’t always see everything that is happening. The effect is slightly to disorient the theatergoers, who, like those on stage, aren’t always sure of what’s going on. The set admirably serves the action. For what makes Black Watch is its physicality, its demands on its actors. The scenery is minimal. Its centerpiece is a pool table, put to cunning use. Watch for the moment when the past intrudes on the present, and the soldiers’ response to the reporter’s query, “what was it like,” resurrects the past. In another crucial scene the pool table, its baize surface pushed down, serves as an armored vehicle in which the men huddle.
The play shifts back and forth between pub and base, present and past. As the scenes at the base move inexorably toward the future, from boredom to disaster, the “home” scenes at the center of the piece move into the past. At one point the pub becomes the site of a World War I recruiting rally, at which Lord Elgin, bearing the sword of Robert the Bruce, lures young miners into enlisting, assuring them that “the Somme region’s fucking beautiful this time ay year.” After an enthusiastic “where do we sign?,” the men launch into one of the play’s traditional marching songs (the “Forfar Sodger,” in this case), and then offer an impromptu fashion show; as Cammy (Paul Rattray) narrates the regiment’s history, he is dressed in and out of the Black Watch’s various period uniforms by his fellow soldiers, who perform the exercise with military precision, lifting and spinning him around like a doll (or gun). It’s a charming, funny scene, brought up short at the end when Cammy recalls the regiment’s presence in 1919 in Mesopotamia: “Where the fuck have I heard that before? Oh . . .aye. Here we are. Again.”
It’s not all frenetic action and assaultive noise (be warned – as in many current productions, the noise level is much louder than it needs to be to make its point). In one of the most moving scenes the men get letters and read them. There are no words, and the only sound is the insistent but lulling background music. As each man finds the letter addressed to him, he begins a series of rhythmic, repeated gestures signifying the emotions contained in or evoked by the message. The scene is a remarkable break from the pattern of running, jumping, marching, and fighting that dominates the play.
Some of the cast members from the last run at St. Ann’s Warehouse return, including Paul Rattray (as Cammy), Nabil Stuart (as Nabsy), Emun Elliott (admirable as Fraz), Peter Forbes (as the Officer), and David Colvin (as Macca). On the night I attended, understudy William Barlow deftly took on the role of Kenzie, one of the new recruits. Among the others Michael Nardone stood out, performing double duty as the writer and the Sergeant. While the performances were all strong, the characters sometimes blurred, likely an intended effect: the regiment itself is the central character. Driving that point home, Black Watch ends just before what might seem a momentous event: an attack on the men who lethally struck at the unit with IEDs and a suicide bombing. In a more traditional war play, we might see, or at least hear of, this operation. We might see these men given some sense of control or even some kind of victory. Instead we close with a parade, increasingly a struggle for the stumbling men, to the accompaniment of bagpipe and drum. The closing image is one of fierce effort, the will to function as one. Cammy’s final line in the play laments that the impending attack is a “fucking shite fight” to mark the end of the Highland’s oldest regiment, and the officer who tries to talk him out of leaving the military admits that “it takes three hundred years to build an army that’s admired and respected around the world. But it takes only three years pissing about in the desert in the biggest western foreign policy disaster ever to fuck it up completely.” The criticism of the U.S. is perfectly clear to an American audience, which probably hasn’t given much thought to the fate of allied forces in this recent war. But the bitterness of Black Watch, built upon the words of soldiers, comes across as hard-earned. In contrast with such other recent imports as Caryl Churchill’s Drunk Enough to Say I Love You, Black Watch offers up something compellingly authentic in its pageant of anger and loss. That the play remains as timely now as it was two years ago only sharpens its bite.