Black Watch has the air of a theatrical phenomenon about it. Part of the National Theatre of Scotland’s first season of productions, premiering at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2006, it returns to the Barbican after a world tour that saw this military drama conquer the critics.
The Black Watch was one of the most famous Scottish military regiments. Controversy surrounded its amalgamation with other Scottish regiments, especially since its demise was announced while it was supporting American troops in Fallujah during the second Iraq War. Writer Gregory Burke is sensitive to the differences between most of his audience and the soldiers that serve in their name. Burke uses this difference effectively, in part by casting the excellent Keith Fleming as both a writer talking to men returning from war and as their Sergeant.
In alternating scenes, director John Tiffany explores the impact of politics and the media on the Iraq war. But his focus is on the men’s motivation for fighting. The result is a play more about experience than explicitly anti-war sentiment.
Tiffany’s inventive staging explores the ‘golden thread’ of history that unites the men fighting alongside their friends. Ian Pirie stands out as the company’s sensitive officer and, in an amusing flashback, as Lord Elgin recruiting for World War I.
It is the sense of camaraderie that you are left with through the powerful performances of this well-trained, uniformly convincing cast. As they fight, fall and march together, to an emotive soundtrack compiled by Davey Anderson, they become formidable and Black Watch becomes unforgettable theatre.
Black Watch deserves its acclaim. If audience preconceptions about the war and about the armed forces are not changed that is because this show is bold enough to acknowledge the complexity of war and those who live as soldiers. What it does succeed in is challenging those preconceptions. For this alone Black Watch should be compulsory viewing.
Until 22 January 2011
Photo by Manuel Harlan
Written 1 December 2010 for The London Magazine