Paul James Corrigan
The National Theatre Of Scotland’s production of Black Watch arrives in London trailing five star reviews like the tail of comet.
The production was first staged in an Edinburgh drill hall during the 2006 festival, where it received an almost unprecedented level of critical praise, and has since toured nationally and internationally. A London transfer has been on the cards since the initial festival buzz, but it has taken them time for them to find a suitably cavernous space. In an attempt to recreate the atmosphere of the original staging, the interior of the Barbican Theatre has been totally transformed, with the seating boarded over and a traverse stage set up with raked seats on either side and twin towers of scaffolding framing a tarpaulin curtain at one end.
Gregory Burke’s play flits between scenes in Iraq, where the regiment has controversially been sent to replace the American troops, and scenes in a pub in Fife where a slightly nervy writer talks to the men about their time there with the intention of telling their stories.
John Tiffany’s superb production is so successful because of the rare harmony it creates between the physical and visual, and the emotional. While the material mined from the interviews with the Black Watch soldiers is already full of powerful stories like that of the soldier, who having survived an attack that left his friends dead, keeps rebreaking his injured arm when it begins to heal the power of these are enhanced considerably by scenes of dance and mime, which are used to convey the things left unsaid in this intense, insular military world: the longing for those left at home, the men’s sense of fear and frustration.
The production also understands and explores the pride these men feel for their unit, epitomised by the distinctive red hackles they wear in their tam-o’-shanters. The long, distinguished history of the Black Watch regiment is depicted by one man being hauled around the stage by the others, dressed and re-dressed in the regiment’s evolving uniform as he talks the audience through three centuries of military history. And while there is some allusion to the fact that this history is being spat upon by their current deployment in Iraq, this is neither an overtly anti-Iraq play nor a particularly pro-military play, but something richer and more satisfying.
It recognises the pull of the ‘golden thread’ that ties men to this unit across generations, the honour they feel in serving, the sense of tradition. But it also acknowledges that these soldiers, these young men, often from small towns, go into the army because it appears the most appealing of their limited options in life. There is humour much humour in the piece (a all too plausible tag-type game involving ‘salty sausages’ is particularly memorable), and perhaps the most frequent and creative onstage use of the word ‘cunt’ I’ve ever heard in the theatre. The ensemble cast have a fantastic rapport with one another, conveying the mutual protectiveness and the intense sense of connection that comes from co-existing together in a place where you may need to kill or could be killed at any time.
The production never sags through its interval-less 110 minutes and it ends in an exhilarating display of military precision, marching and pipes, an intentional nod to the Edinburgh Tattoo that would have been particularly apt during its original Festival staging.
This is powerful stuff, theatre that informs but never lectures, theatre that unites striking theatrical imagery with a beating human heart. It reclaims these soldiers from the clichs of the press, the tiresome ‘our boys’ platitudes, and makes them live. As such, it is fully deserving of all the praise it has received.