Rothes Halls, Glenrothes, 20 March 2011
The lights dim and an official voice tells you that if you leave the room you will not be permitted to return. A thorough health and safety announcement follows. With the audience divided in two, each group opposite the other, the stage in-between, for a good while there is little to do other than stare at each other, wonder at the unorthodox seating arrangements and wait to see if Black Watch can live up to its reputation.
Premièring in 2006 at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Gregory Burke’s play Black Watch took Scotland by storm. Praised by the Sunday Telegraph as ‘completely brilliant’ and described by The Herald as ‘an astonishing artistic whirlwind’, it went as far afield as New York and garnered similar laurels. Now, back in the heart of Scotland, it is being reproduced with all the original pomp and circumstance. The question is though: beneath all the clever theatrical devices, is there still a riveting story beating? The Iraq War is over and though the Middle East is still a hotbed of discord it is being pushed to the side-lines by the recent conflicts in Northern Africa. Do the themes and ideas of Black Watch still resonate or has the play already been conscribed to the annals of history? Does anyone care about the soldiers once the war is over?
At times I felt I was back in Edinburgh watching the Tattoo, at other times watching a Hollywood blockbuster; with a pool table doubling as an armoured vehicle and multiple TVs projecting images of aerial bombardment, it was hard not to be overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the production. With so many ideas cramped into one seamless (no intermission) portrayal of a regiment, before, during and after deployment in Iraq, it was surprising that with all the chronological and spatial liberties the play took it was still effortless to follow. Admittedly with such a large stage some of the scenes degenerated into the dramatic equivalent of a tennis match, actors throwing lines back and forth at each other, forcing the audience to risk whiplash to keep up. Nevertheless, even this aspect of Black Watch had been carefully composed. The emphasis on distance, whether it is was the distance the soldiers were from home or from the destruction going on around them, defines the play. The audience is taken on a tour of what it is like to be a soldier; all the anxieties, the feelings of estrangement, the sense of comradeship, are handed to us, for a moment, as we see things through their eyes. The elaborate stage directions and choreographed gimmicks are entertaining to the point that they risk obscuring the essence of the play; but, make no mistake, Black Watch has substance behind the showmanship. Its themes are timeless and it conveys them in an uncontrived and simple manner, and not until war is a thing of the past will this play ever truly be redundant.
Photo by Manuel Harlan and courtesy of the National Theatre of Scotland