Put simply, it’s essential that you see Black Watch at Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse: It’s among the most compelling theater pieces you could wish to see. And weep for, in a sense. The production from Scotland’s National Theatre is a magnificent one, and its awesome reality and humaneness will overwhelm you.
Black Watch is the first docudrama about war I’ve seen that successfully turns reportage into art. The play transcends our initial fears about the story it sets out to tell about Scotland’s fabled regiment, the Black Watch, and the war in Iraq. Perhaps we might think the issues about the war are already well known, or that this will be yet another self-satisfied antiwar saga preaching to the choir like David Hare’s Stuff Happens. But that isn’t the case for a second, and politicians as such aren’t the concern of this astonishing political play.
Another singular breakthrough of Black Watch is that it’s the first theater piece about the Iraq war to tell the story from the point of view of the soldiers. It’s an almost laughably simple idea. Its gifted (and good-humored) Scots dramatist Gregory Burke is the product of a great tradition in Scotland of a theater of passionate social conscience and historic “local” community issues. (In this case, the local achieves universal significance.)
Mr. Burke’s play is based on the personal testimonials of 10 former Black Watch soldiers whom he interviewed at length, and the imaginative brilliance of the director John Tiffany and his entire creative team have brought it all to shattering life.
This is as close to the experience of war any of us is ever likely to get, thank God. To say, “it’s as if we were there” would be phony, however. We’re in a theater; we’re attending a performance. Army rituals—of dress, tradition, codes of honor—are inherently theatrical, too (particularly when accompanied by pipe and drums). Watching 10 terrific Scots actors reenact young working class squaddies facing death and suicide bombers in the quagmire of Iraq might appear to come uncomfortably close to a case of traumatic tourism. But Black Watch is much too real and emotionally convincing for that—and it wrong-foots us all, daringly, from the start.
THE PLAY OPENS with the blaring sound of thrilling bagpipes and drums as if we were attending the annual Military Tattoo in Edinburgh for tourists. The theater space at St. Ann’s Warehouse has been reconfigured to represent an esplanade—or parade ground—with the audience seated facing each other on its two sides. There’s even a voice-over to greet the anticipated entrance of the oldest and proudest Highland regiment in their splendid kilts and plumage and big show-off sporrans:
“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the unique setting of the St. Ann’s Warehouse. It’s almost time for the thrilling moment when the gates swing open. The unforgettable first sight and sound of the massed pipes and drums. Ladies and gentlemen, may we present the Black Watch.”
A cannon fires, and the first thing we see is a young Scot in civvies. “A’right,” he says. “Welcome to this story of the Black Watch.” He tells us he was at first reluctant to do this, and didn’t want to have to explain himself:
“See. I think people’s minds are usually made up about you if you were in the army,” he tells us in his Scots brogue matter-of-factly. “They poor fucking boys. They cannay day anything else. They cannay get a job. They get exploited by the army. Well, I want you to fucking know. I wanted to be in the army. I could have done other stuff. …”
He takes a beat, and looks at us: “And people’s minds are made up about the war that’s on the now ay? They are. It’s no right. It’s illegal. We’re just big bullies. … Well, we’ll need to get fucking used tay it. Bullying’s the fucking job. That’s what you have a fucking army for.”
It’s an electric opening, threatening, even shaming, and as honestly direct and unsentimental as everything that follows. Be warned (if you must): The muscular language in this play makes the notorious four-letter vernacular of David Mamet seem quaint. These soldiers from the former mining villages and shipping towns, from Dundee and Dunfermline, Kirkcaldy and Perth, aren’t attending a garden party. Their rhythmic coarseness is often very funny, but you wouldn’t want to mess with these lads in a Glasgow bar on a Saturday night, that’s for sure.
Yet the playwright of Black Watch did just that, in his modest way—notebook in slightly quavering hand, well-meaning, sincerely sincere questions to be asked—
“What was it like in Iraq?”
“What was it fucking like?” comes the incredulous answer from one ex-soldier in the bar where they first met.
“Go tay fucking Baghdad if you want tay ken what’s it’s like,” says another,
“What I mean is,” the writer explains apologetically, “I want to know about your experience, what it was like for you. For the soldiers. On the ground.”