National Theatre of Scotland
The Lowry at The Pie Factory, Salford
For those of us who failed to get tickets for this production in Edinburgh in 2006 — a production that everyone in Edinburgh was raving about from the critics to the taxi drivers — this short tour of the UK of Gregory Burke's Black Watch has been long awaited.
John Tiffany's production has become the National Theatre of Scotland's equivalent of Chekhov's The Seagull to the Moscow Art Theatre, in that it was put together very early in the company's life, brought it great acclaim from all over the world and is likely to be its signature production for many years to come. And this is certainly no bad thing, as it is an astonishing piece of theatre, being both complex and easily accessible on both an artistic and a political level. This is unashamedly political theatre, but told from a very human point of view: that of the men in situations that most of us could never conceive of but with no more idea of what they are doing it for than we have.
Burke's script is a play about the writing of the play (a great opportunity for some of those student groups in the audience to sprinkle the word 'metatheatre' through their essays) as it follows a timid writer into the pub where he tries to interview the former members of the Scottish Black Watch Regiment about their experiences fighting in Iraq. If this is how it happened, you have to feel sorry for Burke, as they did not make it easy for him to say the very least. From here we are taken back and forth between the pub and the events that the soldiers experienced in Iraq. The result is more of a patchwork than a plot, but it is no less compelling for that.
The piece has music, songs and movement closely woven into it, and for this Tiffany has two assistant directors: Steven Hoggett for movement and Davey Anderson for music. The movement sections are just incredible, creating complex and extremely physical dance pieces that still somehow bring out the intensity and the machismo and the aggression of the situations and relationships of the characters. There is a section that relates the history of the Black Watch Regiment in which one man, while telling the story, is picked up, thrown about and changed into the uniforms of the regiment at different points through history which is just fascinating to watch.
It is impossible to pick individual names out of this ten-strong cast, as this is just about the most accomplished ensemble playing you are ever likely to see. Every one of them sustained a physically and emotionally intense performance right to the end for an hour and fifty minutes without an interval. The heat in the venue combined with the effects of the hot lights and heavy uniforms and the physical nature of the performances no doubt went some way towards helping them to act being in the Iraqi desert.
The play shows the soldiers to be, at times, aggressive, volatile, foul-mouthed and violent, but it is also a very affectionate portrait that firmly puts across the solders' point-of-view to the audience so that you can't help sympathising with them and listening to their views. The story struck much more of a chord in Scotland due to the country's great pride in its military history and the British government's controversial amalgamation of the Black Watch Regiment while its soldiers were out fighting in Iraq.
The performance includes constant, very strong language, strobe lights, loud explosions, some of which you can feel shaking your seat, and some disturbing images, but if these keep you away you are missing out on the sort of theatrical experience that doesn't come along very often in a lifetime. The almost complete standing ovation at the end of this opening night was genuine, spontaneous and well-deserved and is not something often seen in Salford for a play.
The performance is actually in the Pie Factory, a TV studio in Media City just around the corner from the Lowry. Audiences can park on the Lowry car park as normal and follow the arrows on the green signs from the front of the Lowry for the five minute walk to the venue. Note that due to the way the play is staged latecomers will not be admitted and anyone leaving the auditorium during the performance will not be readmitted.
Reviewer: David Chadderton