Black Watch 2010
Jack Lowden, Richard Rankin, Ross Anderson, Chris Starkie, Cameron Barnes, Stuart Martin, Keith Fleming, Jamie Quinn, Scott Fletcher, Ian Pirie
Starting life at the Edinburgh Festival in 2006, the National Theatre of Scotland’s Black Watch has wowed audiences and critics wherever it has gone.|
Watching it on its second trip to the Barbican it is easy to see why. This is a piece that conveys power and emotion in both its spoken commentaries and physical staging. It allows us to feel what the characters are verbally telling us, and makes a host of pertinent points without ever coming across as moralistic.
The Black Watch is a Scottish regiment with a rich history. Founded in 1725, it ‘threw its lot in with the British’ in 1739, and has played a part in most of its military campaigns since including the American War of Independence, the Battle of Waterloo and the First World War.
It has always been valued for its unique skills in warfare, which, the piece argues, derive from its Scottish roots. To the Scots battle is sport, and, being so tribal themselves, they know how to fight tribal enemies. The Iraq War, however, demanded things that it was in no position to deliver, and this is the subject of the play.
It starts with a writer (Keith Fleming) contacting some members of the regiment once they are back in Scotland to ask about their experiences. The play is then told in a series of scenes that see him talking to the soldiers in their favourite Sunday haunt before cutting to the action as it unfolded in Iraq. Many of the points made are physically explained by the soldiers, but these are offset by the relationships we see played out between them in both settings, and other visual effects. The stage is long and thin, with scaffolding rising high at each end and the audience sitting on tiered seating either side. Within the drama Scottish songs and dances are performed, ancestors of the regiment rise to ‘rally the troops’, and soldiers change uniform to show how it evolved over time. As today’s group describe the ‘golden thread’ that links them to their fighting fathers and grandfathers, the play’s atmosphere is generated by the sense of pride and history that hangs over the regiment.
But in 2004 it is sent on an ill-conceived mission. With the Americans trying to capture Fallujah, the regiment is ordered to create a blockade to its South to stop communication between insurgents, and to win the hearts and minds of locals. The move is a political one to show a united allied front, but, as the soldiers make clear, they have always fought for the regiment or even just their friends. Now, they are being asked to fight in a war that has supposedly ended against an enemy that poses no threat to their homeland.
In this way, the regiment feels hostile towards the Americans for their gung-ho approach to attacking targets, but also proves tempted by their flashiness and promises to bring certain merchandise. Initially at least, the soldiers see the Iraqis not so much as the enemy as simply alien or irrelevant, and they even feel sorry for a lone man on foot trying to take on four armoured vehicles.
Soon, however, they are arguing that you don’t feel guilty about shooting someone who is shooting at you. As the insurgents grow in strength it becomes clear that the Black Watch is not designed to deal with suicide bombers. A willingness to kill oneself in order to cause maximum destruction is something that the regiment (or the West in general) can neither understand nor cope with. As we learn that the Black Watch is to lose its autonomy and merge with five other Scottish regiments (which subsequently happened in 2006) we feel for the Officer (Ian Pirie) who laments that 300 years of endeavour have been destroyed by two years of involvement in an unmitigated foreign policy disaster.
Needless to say, the tone can be sombre, but the play is never judgmental. Aided by a superb set of performances, we are presented with a range of multi-faceted characters who challenge us at every turn. At the start Cammy (Jack Lowden) confronts ‘our’ view that all soldiers are ‘good for nothings’ who couldn’t do anything else. As we see the soldiers back in Scotland we also realise that things once seen as triumphs are now viewed with bitter pain. They want to brush over the subject of death, with one soldier insisting that he never counted the number he killed, even though he clearly did at the time. They also tell the writer that he could never understand how it was for them, although he in turn does not come across simply as a headline grabbing journalist.
The play ends with a highly potent regimental march that displays all of the pride, history and courage of the group as well as its fears, vulnerability and hopelessness in the current situation. One would love to say that this revealed how ultimately its strengths led it to triumph over its adversities but, in the context of this brilliant and morally neutral play, that is perhaps not the conclusion to be drawn.