‘Black Watch’ Gives Audiences a Welcome Beating

Scott Fletcher as Kenzie and Jamie Quinn as Fraz in the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of 'Black Watch'. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

Black Watch, from the Scottish National Theatre, pummels you into submission. It’s loud and flashy (literally), and meant in every way to convince us civilians that explosions and death are more than we could handle. And yet it’s also meant to explain why these young Scottish soldiers do what they do – not for country, or even family, but for each other: for the regiment, the squad, the patrol, the smallest possible unit of their fighting force.

Arriving at the theater, the audience is met by prison-style searchlights. The perimeter is being guarded. After a few announcements assuring us that medical help is in place in the theater, and that anybody leaving the audience won’t be reseated amidst the mayhem, the show begins with earsplitting guitar music, not the expected bagpipes. Those are saved for later.

The scene is a Scottish pool hall, and the Black Watch veterans are awaiting the arrival of a researcher who has called and asked to gather their Iraq war stories. It’s not the stories so much as the imagined sexual favors they expect from the researcher that have opened the door – so the soldiers’ disappointment is keen when the researcher turns out to be a man; the girl they expected had merely set up his visit.

The questioner represents playwright Gregory Burke, who really did conduct interviews with veterans from the Black Watch Brigade to create this work. He makes fun of himself by embodying the expected fears of the vets – he asks the obvious, stupid questions. But soon enough we are transported, as we always knew we would be, to Iraq, where the Scottish troops had been asked to back up an American force of much greater strength in an ill-advised holding action that will end badly.

When they first arrive in Iraq, the soldiers are cocky and up for anything. They can’t believe that the incoming fire puts them in any danger. But as the mortars and other explosions, signified by crashing sound and flashing lights, become a regular feature of their lives—and ours in the audience—they begin to take their toll.

The action shifts fluidly from home to battlefield and back—an embedded reporter on the front lines substitutes for the interviewer at home, and then the interviewer is suddenly transported to Iraq along with the soldiers. An older commander tries to elicit the men’s loyalties to home, regiment and country; an experienced sergeant claims that girls will flock to the soldiers once they’re back home.

Yet all but the youngest know better—home will bring dislocation and exile from the common and peaceful things in life, and bad memories. The pool hall is devoid of women; they’re rarely even talked about. The war has spoiled these men for life.

At the show’s opening night, there seemed to be some hesitation and an occasional lack of cohesion. Perhaps it was the last minute cast substitution, not even announced in the theater, which thrust an understudy into a starring role.

But in the days after seeing Black Watch, as the show sank in, the strands seemed to pull together. What stuck in the mind was a choreographed scene where all the men, in small groups, sprinted to corners of the stage, where they found their parade ground distance by sticking out their arms to touch their mates’ shoulders. They then marched a few paces, and sprinted to another corner. But as the sprinting continued, a man would stumble, then recover. Then another man would stumble, and fall, and be helped to his feet by his buddies.

All of a sudden, the military precision seemed not fearful, but a temporary and futile holding action, putting off the inevitable stumble. There could be no more apt metaphor for war.

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