Paul James Corrigan
Black Watch, the National Theatre of Scotland production making its return to New York after a successful run at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn last fall, is certainly a unique theatrical event. Telling the story of the Scottish Black Watch Regiment during combat in Iraq and the time shortly after they’ve returned home, John Tiffany’s visibly gymnastic production is both visually impressive and frustratingly short on narrative focus.
Paul Rattray is Cammy, a soldier who’s returned from the war. One day, he answers an ad in the paper thinking it’s been placed by a voluptuous woman writer. Instead, he – and the group of soldier’s he’s assembled in a local pub to have their way with her – are greeted by an unassuming male screenwriter looking for first-hand accounts from those soldiers who’ve experienced combat in Iraq for a film project he’s writing. Another soldier, Stewarty (Steven Miller), takes offense to the writer’s inquiries, proclaiming that no one can know what fighting feels like if they haven’t experienced it first-hand.
It’s this battle of experience versus representation that thrusts the action forward, as well as the strong bonds between the soldiers that are forged along the way. The action of the play switches from the Scottish pub, with its TV sports playing in the background, to Iraq. Many of the soldiers, rather than being particularly sympathetic to the U.S.’s cause in Iraq, have joined up because of their families’ histories in the regiment, as emphasized by their officer (an impressive Peter Forbes).
From the first moments of the play, things seem like they’ll be fairly straightforward. Maybe, an audience may be thinking, this is going to be a documentary-style play. Soon, however, soldiers are cutting their way out from under pool tables and the catwalk-configured space is transformed into an otherworldly “half-here, half-there” soldiers’ purgatory.
Associate director of movement Steven Hoggett handles many of the surreal moments in the play extraordinarily well. Without his choreographed segments, there would be less about Black Watch to applaud. Particularly striking was a dance in which soldiers, having read a loved one’s letter, interpreted its contents and their reaction wordlessly through movement. Also impressive are the play’s final moments, in which the ranks of the soldiers’ parade are systematically broken by the enemy and repaired through camaraderie.
Also well-placed were the many musical moments throughout the play, which allowed the audience time to breathe in between the play’s more visceral, in-yer-face moments. Traditional Scottish folk songs are interspersed throughout, with beautiful arrangements and assured musical direction by Davey Anderson. They’re beautifully rendered by the cast, who have impressive singing voices.
Though my aural and visual palates were sated throughout, however, I never felt like I’d gotten to know the characters standing before me. Despite themes of togetherness and solidarity, I hadn’t gotten to know these Black Watch soldiers well enough to truly care about their plight. It’s not the fault of the troupe of actors, who leave a definite stamp of individuality on their characters, but rather on playwright Gregory Burke, whose focus is on broader themes rather than individual conflicts. This makes for the stuff of great military-infused visual flair, but left me wanting more to feel in my gut.