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Black Watch, National Theatre of Scotland, Black Watch, National Theatre of Scotland,
photo Prudence Upton
AT THE CORE OF THE NATIONAL THEATRE OF SCOTLAND’S BLACK WATCH IS A SERIES OF RECONSTRUCTED PUB CONVERSATIONS BETWEEN WRITER GREGORY BURKE AND FORMER MEMBERS OF THE ICONIC SCOTTISH REGIMENT THE BLACK WATCH, ALL VETERANS OF THE IRAQ WAR. IT’S RICH MATERIAL, LIBERALLY PEPPERED WITH EXPLETIVES AND FILLED WITH EVOCATIVE DESCRIPTIONS OF THE EVERYDAY SOLDIER’S LIFE, EQUAL PARTS DANGER AND EXTREME BOREDOM.

The play is at its strongest when it focuses directly upon the rituals of soldiering, the physical and rhetorical means by which the regiment maintains an intimate connection to its martial history. Their existence as soldiers of the Black Watch is a source of immense personal pride for our protagonists, the continued embodiment of a proud history of Scottish masculine identity, an identity undiminished by their function as the footsoldiers of Empire. In one dazzling sequence, our narrator Cammy is dressed and re-dressed in the constantly updating uniforms of the Black Watch’s three centuries as he explains its history, his body tossed casually about by the other performers. The most fascinating betrayal within the narrative is not the deployment to Iraq, but rather the forced amalgamation of the regiment while still deployed, spitting in the face of history.

Unfortunately, the strength of these scenes is diluted by the regular return to a mode of spectacle that poorly serves the dramaturgy. The clearest example comes about three-quarters of the way through the two-hour running time. Crammed in the back of a damaged vehicle for many hours, the soldiers fill the time with verbal games, lists of what to eat back home at particular restaurants. Despite the ethnicity of each restaurant, one soldier only wants cheese on toast. His refusal to play the game leads to the palpable threat of violence, and the sergeant duly drags the would be combatants out of the vehicle. “You fucking two. Ten fucking seconds.” The rest of the company surround our duellists, waiting hungrily. The ritualised release of pent up aggression, forcibly channelled into a ten-second window after which life must return to normal, is thrilling and confronting, a moment rich in potential. Instead of an intense outburst of violence however, what is presented onstage is a massed fight choreography, in which each cast member fights each other cast member as the video screens count pointlessly from ten to one over and over. The performers are highly adept at this stage combat, but the scene became just another well-drilled but hollow spectacle.

Ultimately, Black Watch makes ordinary citizens, Australian as much as Scottish, feel good about the fact that while they might not support the war, they love ‘our boys’ who wage this war on our behalf. The politics of the work are pretty safe, with familiar messages about the false premises of the Iraq War threaded into the soldiers’ narrative. In one scene, the company watches while US forces undertake airstrikes upon an insurgent stronghold for four hours. “This is nay fucking fighting”, one states, “This is just plain old-fashioned bullying.” The sentiment resonated with the audience, most of whom seemed to have forgotten the opening monologue with its provocative declaration that “Bullying’s the fucking job. That’s what you have a fucking army for.” Whilst the contradiction is deeply fascinating, the production seems to want to play to the supposed soft-left bias of the audience, for whom it seems safe to blame the Americans. If the Iraqis can’t really be the bad guys (“what have the fucking Iraqis got to do with anything?” one soldier demands of writer Gregory Burke), then the Americans seem an obvious substitute.

These kinds of ideological simplifications were disappointing, and conspired with the poorly executed video design and the extended but largely underwhelming physical routines to suppress the raw power of the frequently remarkable writing. There’s a great work buried within Black Watch, but unfortunately John Tiffany’s production, despite its fantastic cast and enthusiastic reception, was not it.


National Theatre of Scotland Black Watch, writer Gregory Burke, director John Tiffany, movement director Steven Hoggett, composer Davey Anderson, designer Laura Hopkins, sound designer Gareth Fry, lighting designer Colin Grenfell, costume designer Jessica Brettle, video designer Leo Warner, Mark Grimmer; Sydney Festival, CarriageWorks, Sydney, Jan 10-26

RealTime issue #83 Feb-March 2008 pg. 12

© David Williams; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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