April 27, 2008

Black Watch @ Warwick Arts Centre

Black Watch must be one of the most hyped new plays of the year so far. Its original Edinburgh performances made an enormous impact, particularly as the National Theatre of Scotland were still at the time in their immediate infancy, and the subsequent world tour has been hugely successful. The queue to get into the Butterworth Hall on Friday night, winding around most of Warwick Arts Centre's large foyer, spoke volumes about just how anticipated this performance was.

Happily, the hype wasn't unjustified. Black Watch is an audacious and powerful piece of theatre, and this performance was wonderful. Sadly, owing to a bereavement, the cast was slightly depleted: Paul James Corrigan was missing, forcing David Colvin and director John Tiffany to take on new responsibilities and causing a delay in the start of the show as they re-rehearsed. It says something about the company's ensemble ethic and committment to the show that the recasting was flawless. Only right at the end, in a piece of formation movement, was it clear that the cast were a man down, but until that point the understudies had blended in seamlessly.

The sheer scale of the production was the element that immediately struck me. The Hall had been converted into a large traverse space, with scaffolding towers at either end. The sense of space created in the cavernous hall was essential to giving a sense of the epic quality of the story, the stage seeming barely able to contain the action. In one technically astonishing moment, the soldiers grouped themselves on the balcony of one tower while the noise of fighter jets screamed overhead, seeming to pass right over the audience, and explosions flashed on a large screen at the far end.

Yet, despite the scale, the play excelled in its intimate moments. Black Watch was created out of interviews conducted by writer Gregory Burke with former members of the titular Scottish army squadron and, in a stroke of brilliance, these interviews themselves were dramatised. This had two particularly beneficial effects. First, it allowed a unique investigation of the ongoing psychological effects of the war for the soldiers, some of them reacting violently to what they perceived as the writer's exploitative use of their stories and his inability to truly understand their situation, culminating in a gripping moment as Ali Craig's Stewarty grabbed the writer's arm and put his foot against it, threatening to break it so he could understand his pain. Secondly, it gave the story an unusual and affecting honesty; as if, by including this framing device, the play was admitting to its own inherent inability to truly do justice to the experiences of these men. This could never be anything more than a representation of another world.

The actual plot, relating the series of events leading up to the death of several members of the squadron at the hands of a suicide bomber, was relatively simple. Most of the narrative, though, focussed not on events but on the day to day life and relationships of this group of soldiers, revelling in the rituals created by the soldiers to survive the banality of life out there - whether their obscene version of tig (rubbing their genitals against the faces of unsuspecting colleagues) or the "10-second fight" to resolve personal conflicts. Much of this was hugely funny, both in their down to earth observations of their situation and their coarse ribbing of each other. Those offended by strong language shouldn't attend, the Scots dialogue containing more four-letter words than Trainspotting.

The characters were better understood as a group than individuals. They had their own personalities - Kenzie the naive rookie, Stewarty the slightly unhinged and later depressive, Fraz the 'ugly bastard' and, centrally, Paul Rattray as Cammy who was our narrator. Cammy arranged the interviews with the writer, introduced his crew, talked us through the history of the Black Watch and acted throughout as the stolid soldier, diligent and industrious but ultimately disillusioned and hurt by his experiences and the death of his friends. It was through Cammy and a series of voiceovers/spoken e-mails/news reports that the wider political issues (the controversy over the Iraq war and the amalgamation of the Scottish regiments and subsequent loss of identity of the Black Watch) were brought up, acting as a backdrop to the story of these men to highlight the ultimate futility of their experiences. Jack Fortune's Officer had perhaps the most pertinent summary of the play's political point:

"It takes three hundred years to build an army that's admired and respected around the world. But it only takes three years pissing about in the desert in the biggest western foreign policy disaster ever to fuck it up completely".

An excellent script isn't enough though, and the most moving moments of the play came through the triple-headed direction of Tiffany, Steven Hoggett (movement) and Davey Anderson (music). The action in the desert was repeatedly punctuated by physical sequences which were powerfully effective. Of these, the best was a sequence in which the soldiers received mail from home. As they read, they dropped their letter and began a series of movements - cradling a baby, stroking hair - that represented the contents of the letter. As each man began his movements, the next came in and picked up his own letter, until they all stood around completely lost in their own recollections of home, still and quiet. Other sequences were more spectacular: the "10 second fight" sequence where all the cast engaged in short but violently choreographed fights, the history sequence where Cammy described the regiment's past while the rest of the company moved him about, spinning him upside down and dressing him in period uniforms, and the final explosion which saw the three dead men raised high in the air, spiralling downwards to their deaths. Elsewhere, the gorgeous Scottish army songs, folk music set to a backdrop of deep bass melodies, provided the perfect aural accompaniment to the action and set the pulse racing.

So, what is it about Black Watch? Is it the natural and entirely believable dialogue? The awe-inspiring sound and lighting design? The comedy? The tragedy? The political and emotional sledgehammers? The simple truth of the story? I'd suggest it's no one of these, but the fact that Burke and Tiffany have managed to successfully assemble all of these elements, along with a stellar cast, in one single tour de force piece of theatre. If there's any justice, it's a play that will be talked about for years to come. My one recommendation is to get a seat away from the edges, as I was occasionally distracted by the stage management team constantly moving about in the wings, but it hardly mattered. Simply brilliant, and a triumph for the National Theatre of Scotland.

- No comments Not publicly viewable

Add a comment

You are not allowed to comment on this entry as it has restricted commenting permissions.

Search this blog


Peter Kirwan is Teaching Associate in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Nottingham and a reviewer of Shakespearean theatre for several academic journals.

The Bardathon is his experimental review blog, covering productions of (or based on) all early modern plays. The aim is to combine immediate reactions with the detail and analysis of the academic review.

Theatre criticism always needs more voices. Please comment with your own views and contributions!

April 2008

Mo Tu We Th Fr Sa Su
Mar |  Today  | May
   1 2 3 4 5 6
7 8 9 10 11 12 13
14 15 16 17 18 19 20
21 22 23 24 25 26 27
28 29 30            

Blog archive


Most recent comments

  • I think you may be over analysing. Wasn't it just meant to be a bit of a history lesson? I remember … by Sue on this entry
  • Very interesting and commendable, it'll be great to see some more of the plays given this attention.… by on this entry
  • The lack of venture in the filming is probably due to NBC Universal being onboard. They provided the… by Duncan on this entry
  • I have been watching the Hollow Crown and i have enjoyed it very much, the acting i think has been v… by Carole Heath on this entry
  • I know what you mean Steve, and it's a reading I appreciate theoretically, but I felt that Part 1 re… by on this entry


Not signed in
Sign in

Powered by BlogBuilder