Black Watch

Gregory Burke
National Theatre of Scotland
Barbican Theatre

Black Watch Credit: Manuel Harlan

Black Watch is back at the Barbican in its second incarnation, having first visited in Summer 2008. This followed its 2006 Edinburgh Fringe debut and a subsequent Scottish and international tour in 2007 and 2008. After its current run at the Barbican it is embarking on its second US tour. This new production by the National Theatre of Scotland makes it easy to see why this show has enjoyed such popularity and longevity. Gregory Burke's script is a truly exceptional piece of contemporary theatre writing. He manages to take the story of three Scottish soldiers killed in Iraq and intertwine it into an epic masterpiece. It simultaneously explores themes of war, Scottish military history, Anglo-American relations, Holyrood-Westminster tensions, male identity, mateship and loss. It weaves a complex web that prevents it from ever becoming a clichéd anti-war piece.

Black Watch also never forgets its role as a piece of entertainment. It is infused with cheeky Scottish humour and Steven Hoggett's movement contributions keep the audience visually engaged. An otherwise dry monologue outlining the entire history of the Black Watch Regiment was accompanied by an impressively slick sequence in which Cammy (Jack Lowden) is dressed, undressed and redressed in the various uniforms that the Black Watch have worn. Repeatedly Black Watch manages to disseminate large chunks of historical information without disrupting the show's fast tempo, either through Cammy's conversational explanations or the Officer's (Ian Pirie) rather formal letters home.

This fast tempo is often maintained by quick cuts between scenes which give the show a filmic quality. The action repeatedly jumps between the Fife pub where the Writer (Keith Fleming) is interviewing the returned soldiers and the Iraqi base where they were stationed. The excellently cast ensemble paint a portrait of a group of young Scots who find themselves in a war zone, in the scorching desert, risking their lives and missing their loved ones, but without much to do or any real sense of why they are there. The soldiers are portrayed as typical boys, more interested in women and cars than the world politics in which they are being used as pawns. But whatever hopes or expectations they had when they signed up to the army, most are disillusioned or traumatised by their experience and leave the army as soon as they get home.

The original 2006 Edinburgh Fringe production of Black Watch was set in a drill hall with the audience sitting on stands, facing each other across the stage. This layout has been recreated for subsequent tours and at the Barbican this involves erecting one of the stands above the normal auditorium seating while the other is in the area that would normally be back stage. On entering the theatre there are bagpipes blaring, lights flashing and the St Andrew's Cross spinning around the stage, invoking the Edinburgh Tattoo at which the famous Black Watch Pipes and Drums are always a crowd favourite.

John Tiffany has directed a new production of Black Watch that has not lost any of the power or relevance of the original. It is not afraid to be critical but also shows deep affection towards the Black Watch and its proud tradition, a history that has become intrinsically linked with that of Scotland itself. This is absolutely the kind of story that the National Theatre of Scotland should and will continue sharing with the world.

Reviewer: Iain James Finlayson

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