The National Theatre of Scotland; Shakespeare Theatre Company Black WatchBy Eric Jones • Sep 24th, 2012 • Category: Reviews
Shakespeare Theatre Company
Sidney Harman Hall, Washington DC
Through October 7th
1:50, no intermission
$45-$90 (plus fees)
Reviewed September 21st, 2012
Almost as soon as the Iraq War began in 2003, Americans asked “Why are we fighting? What is the point of this violence?” Through it all however, we’ve held onto the idea that the abstract concept of “country” is most important. There tends to be an “us-against-the world” mentality that permeates American culture, so we often forget that we are not the only country fighting this seemingly endless and unpopular war. One has to imagine that fighting and perhaps dying in this war would mean something vastly different to a soldier whose country is not directly involved but is simply aiding its ally. The need to communicate this meaning gave Scottish playwright Gregory Burke the impetus to conduct interviews with young men of the Black Watch, a legendary Scottish military regiment. The culmination of these interviews is the mesmerizing, captivating, and awe-inspiring play Black Watch, currently running at the Shakespeare Theatre.
With its roots in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Black Watch has toured the world with great and well-deserved success. The play introduces us to a cast of typical Scottish lads searching for identity and purpose – forever bound to each other by the fraternity and honor of serving in the Black Watch, Scotland’s oldest and most respected military regiment. Constructed from interviews of real Black Watch soldiers in 2004, the story examines events surrounding Operation TELIC and the controversial amalgamation of the Black Watch into the Royal Regiment of Scotland. The action jumps back and forth between a pub in Scotland, Army bases and convoys in Iraq, and a uniquely theatrical “non-space” in which the ghostly echoes of generations of Scottish warriors share their anguish and glory in ways that affect the very souls of the audience. As I entered the theatre, I stared in awe of the enormous stage flanked on two sides by the audience – “theatre in the isthmus” as I’ve taken to calling it. Lighting effects and multimedia projectors draped the space with the Scottish flag bearing St. Andrew’s cross as massed pipe and drum music filled the air. This in and of itself stirred a sort of ancestral patriotism in me, and I reveled in it. There is a part of the show in which the lads mock Americans saying things just like this, but I’ll say it anyway – my great-grandmother was a Scottish immigrant and though I never knew her, something about that music made me proud to be a descendant of Clan MacArthur.
Black Watch employs many different theatrical devices to tell its story, giving the piece a timeless feel while simultaneously grounding it in today’s reality. The set has a very Brechtian feel to it – all exposed wires and scaffolding alongside twenty-first century screens and projectors – adding a rawness and grit to the environment that suggests the desolation of war. The cast periodically sings old Black Watch tunes such as “Twa Recruiting Sergeants” and “Gallant Forty-Twa” hauntingly arranged by Associate Director of Music Davey Anderson, but perhaps the most striking aspect of this show is its movement. Going into a show about the Scottish military, the last thing I expected to see was the best bloody ballet I’ve ever seen but that’s precisely what I got. I wouldn’t necessarily call the movement “dance” per se, but it was clear that every movement was meticulously choreographed down to the last minute detail. From combat choreography to elaborate drill exercises and marching, Associate Director of Movement Steven Hoggett’s choreography was utterly breathtaking and proved an invaluable asset to the show.
Director John Tiffany has amassed an amazing ensemble of Scottish actors – each of whom is a credit to their craft and to Scotland. I typically like to mention the standout performances of two or three actors, but I am unable to do so for this show simply because each performer was every bit as brilliant as the next. One of the great strengths of Black Watch is the ability of its fine cast to perform as one unit which not only makes for a stellar show, it also reinforces the theme of brotherhood essential to the storyline. The company rightly took its bow all together – graciously accepting the accolades they’d won together. As an actor, I was truly inspired by the performance of this ensemble, and I would be beyond honored to be among them someday.
The show’s exhilarating finale incorporates the talents of cast member Cameron Barnes, a champion bagpiper. The unique sound of bagpipes is at the same time mournful and joyous; it somehow manages to capture the Celtic spirit with its obstinate drones. I’ll never forget the experience of seeing the ensemble standing at attention as Mr. Barnes marched forward to the sounds of “The Flowers of the Forest” – a traditional tune played for fallen Scottish warriors. From there, the actors launched into an expertly choreographed combination of traditional Black Watch marches and training exercises. As the lights faded, the only sound was of the actors’ labored breathing – exhausted by their exertions. As their breathing softened, the only sound I could hear was the collective pounding of two hundred hearts as we sat in complete awe of what we’d just witnessed. I generally won’t stand for an ovation unless I feel that a show has truly earned it, but I was the first on my feet for Black Watch – emotionally exhausted, tears streaming down my face, and cheering “Alba gu bràth.” Not since the Broadway production of Next to Normal has a show evoked such a visceral reaction within me, and it was amazing to be reminded of the awesome power of theatre to affect people down to our very cores.
With a running time of 110 minutes with no intermission, this show is not appropriate for little ones. The show contains very strong language, loud explosions, and frank discussions about the horrors of war that may frighten some. Black Watch is a harrowing, disturbing, and ultimately enthralling piece that will make you question many of your world views, yet reaffirm your faith in the indomitable human spirit. I am finding it difficult to write this particular review simply because this show defies superlatives. Any compliment that I could give to the cast and crew of Black Watch seems insufficient compared to the unforgettable experience they gave to me. All I can say is this: Black Watch is the epitome of what all live theatre should strive to be.
In August 2005, a couple of months after I started working at the Nation Theatre of Scotland, I attended a cycle of plays at the Kings Theatre in Edinburgh as part of the International Festival. The cycle was produced by the Galway-based Druid Theatre Company and consisted of all six of JM Synge’s plays performed by the same company of actors over nine hours with breaks for sustenance. It was a truly amazing experience to sit and watch the entire dramatic output of one brilliant playwright. As a celebration of the achievements of Irish theatre, it felt truly national.
I started thinking about the role of the National Theatre of Scotland in relation to the history of Scottish theatre and how we could honour and rouse its traditions. There have been, and continue to be, many great dramatists producing great plays over the years. Major revivals of Scottish classics along with world premieres will always have a strong presence in our program. But the plays are not the whole story.
Fuelled by variety, visual art, music and a deep love of storytelling, Scotland’s artists have created a form of theatre that is as significant and vital as its written drama. It features narration, song, movement, stand-up comedy, film, politics and, above all, an urgent need to connect with its audience. It is often contemporary with world events and issues, although never dry and academic, and therefore deeply relevant and bound to the time in which it is created. It is a distinct form of theatre of which Scotland can be very proud.
It is a tradition that has been fired by, and has found expression in, the work of a great number of theatre companies and artists: John McGrath and 7:84 changed the face of Scottish theatre with The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, which encompassed 200 years of Scottish history from the Clearances in the 18th century to the discovery of North Sea Oil in the 1970s; Gerry Mulgrew and Communicado collaborated with Liz Lochhead and Edwin Morgan to create visceral and riotous shows such as Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off and Cyrano de Bergerac; Bill Bryden told the story of dying industry with a great demotic energy in The Ship, performed in the former Harland & Wolff engine she in Govan. All these pieces of theatre used cabaret, spectacle, passion and honesty to communicate with their audiences. It is these productions, among others, that were the inspiration behind the ambition of Black Watch.
This ambition results in a development period and rehearsal process that was unfamiliar to me, writer Greg Burke and the creative team. For the most part we were making it up as we went along. At the end of 2004, in one of the first things she did as the Artistic Director of the National Theatre of Scotland, Vicky Featherstone asked Greg to keep an eye on the story of the Black Watch regiment, who had just returned to Scotland from Camp Dogwood. When I joined the Company in April 2005, Greg had discovered some fascinating stories with real dramatic potential, so we decided to program the piece in our inaugural year as a ‘highly physical piece of political theatre’. I asked Greg not to write a fictional drama set in Iraq, but that instead we should try and tell the ‘real’ stories of the soldiers in their own words. This led to Greg interviewing a group of Black Watch lads in a Fife pub over a couple of months (thanks to our researcher Sophie Johnston), all of whom had just left the regiment. I knew that I wanted to perform the piece in a space in which we could create our own version of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, with seating banks down either side of an esplanade. This, we found in Edinburgh, in an old drill hall near the Castle that was being used as a car park by the University. For the first time as a director, and through nobody’s fault but my own, I was going into rehearsals without a script. All we had were the interviews, some traditional Black Watch songs and the dimensions of the drill hall.
Luckily, Greg had been secretly writing some fictional scenes set in Dogwood and these made a powerful contrast with the pub interviews. We soon had material from Steven Hoggett, Associate Director (Movement), who was working with the actors on a ‘letters from home’ sequence and brought in a Regimental Sergeant Major to teach us parade marches and Davey Anderson, Associate Director (Music), who was creating radical new arrangements of the Black Watch songs. We also had fantastic support from Sarah Alford-Smith, our Stage Manager, who created a 21st-century rehearsal environment with internet access, DVD players and video cameras and who, along with the actors, collated a goldmine of news reports, radio extracts, documentaries, political speeches, statistics and visual references. Even with all this material, it still wasn’t clear to us whether we had a piece of theatre that would communicate anything to an audience. We continued not to know up until the first night in Edinburgh. Then it became apparent that there was a real connection being made and that we were telling a story that the audience desperately wanted to hear.
Not long into that three-week run at the 2006 Festival Fringe, we realized there was an appetite for Black Watch to tour. Due to the traverse staging and size of floor space needed, conventional theatres were not an option so we started the long and arduous task of searching for possible spaces for the production. As a result of the hard graft of everyone at the National Theatre of Scotland, we have been able to take Black Watch to audiences all over Scotland and beyond, performing in venues as diverse as a disused hydro-electric laboratory in Pitlochry, a warehouse underneath Brooklyn Bridge in New York, a converted train factory in Sydney and an Ice Rink in Toronto. I couldn’t be more honored that the journey continues.
There is a pride in Scotland, romanticized perhaps, but a pride nonetheless, about our military traditions. Scotland has always provided a percentage of the British Army that is disproportionate to its population’s size. Where does this martial culture sit alongside the shortbread tin version of the Highlands, of the socialist glory of the former industrial areas? What is the enduring appeal of regiments like the Black Watch?
Young men around the world are often limited to narrow, predetermined roles that prove more fragile and less sustainable under the pressure of growing up. Many of them find that the identities they would choose for themselves aren’t available when they reach adulthood. If the environment does not offer an alternative when this change confronts them, then sometimes they turn to those organizations that are adept at exploiting this need for identity.
During the rehearsals for the original 2006 production, a former Regimental Sergeant Major of the Black Watch gave the actors the benefit of both 267 years of parade ground insults and of the particular attention the regiment pays to what a layman might find trivial. The exact way to wear your uniform, for example. The impulse to turn as much of the world as possible into an acronym. But mostly what he taught them about was pride. To take a pride in yourself. To take a pride in what you are doing. To take a pride in your appearance. To take a pride in what you represent. When the actors first mastered a piece of marching, he took them outside and made them march in the street: he was proud of them and he wanted other people to see what they could do. To me this was indicative of the seductive nature of surrendering yourself to an institution that has refined its appeal to the male psyche’s yearning for a strong identity.
Like any military unit, the Black Watch has to carve out its own identity. It has to see itself and its members as special. It has several tactics for achieving this. Its history is drummed into recruits from the day they enter basic training. Then there are the uniforms: the kilts, and the red hackle that they wear on their Tam O’Shanters. There are the Pipes and Drums, who played a John F Kennedy’s funeral and tour the world.
There is a cachet to be had from serving in the Black Watch, the oldest Highland regiment. They call it the ‘Golden Thread’: the connection that has run through the history of the regiment since its formation. Even today, in our supposedly fractured society, the regiment exists on a different plane. In Iraq, there were lads serving alongside their fathers. There were groups of friends from even the smallest communities: the army does best in those areas of the country the UK Ministry of Defence describes as having ‘settled communities’. The army does not recruit well in London or any other big city; fighting units tend to be more at home with homogeneity than with metropolitanism or multiculturalism. The central core of the regiment has always been the heartland of Perthshire, Fife, Dundee and Angus.
When the clans of Scotland used to fight, they would have people who stood in front of the soldiers and recited the names of their ancestors. In the end, our soldiers don’t fight for Britain or for the Government or for Scotland. They fight for their regiment. Their company. Their platoon. And for their mates.
Photos by Manuel Harlan
- Cammy: Ryan Fletcher
- Granty: Richard Rankin
- Rossco: Adam McNamara
- Stewarty: Chris Starkie
- Macca: Cameron Barnes
- Nabsy: Gavin Jon Wright
- Writer and Sergeant: Robert Jack
- Kenzie: Scott Fletcher
- Fraz: Andrew Fraser
- Officer and Lord Elgin: Stephen McCole
- Director: John Tiffany
- Associate Director (Movement): Steven Hoggett
- Associate Director (Music): Davey Anderson
- Set Design: Laura Hopkins
- Lighting Design: Colin Grenfell
- Sound Design: Gareth Fry
- Costume Design: Jessica Brettle
- Video Design: Leo Warner and Mark Grimmer (59Ltd)
- Associate Movement Director: Vicki Manderson
- Staff Director: Joe Douglas
- Casting Director: Anne Henderson
- U.S. Stage Manager: Joseph Smelser*
- Company Stage Manager: Carrie Hutcheon
- Deputy Stage Manager: Alison Brodie
- Assistant Stage Manager: Katie Hutcheson
- Technical Manager: David Graham
- Lighting Supervisor: Neill Pollard
- Lighting Technician: Jon Meggat
- Sound Supervisor: Chris Reid
- Sound Technician: Matthe Ferrie
- Technician: John Dinsdale
- Wardrobe Supervisor: Christine Dove
- Wardrobe Technician: Hannah Clark
- International Representation: Michael Mushalla
- Communications and Events Officer: Adam McDougall
Disclaimer: Shakespeare Theatre Company provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/8658.
Eric Jones , a native of Frederick, MD, has been heavily involved in every single facet of theatre for the majority of his life. He has been seen on stages in Frederick, Charles Town, WV, Kensington, MD, Greenbelt, MD, Gettysburg, PA, and many others. A two-time WATCH Award nominee, Eric has over 80 shows to his credit and is a double-graduate of Frederick County's Arts and Communications Academy in music and theatre. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Communication from the University of Maryland and currently lives in Frederick.