Writing about Black Watch is not easy. But I will try.
It runs for almost two hours without intermission. There are ten actors (all male, and all Scottish). It was first presented at the Edinburgh Fringe about six years ago. It travels as a package – actors and full production team all come from Scotland.
Although its complete history is apparently a bit unclear, the Scottish Black Watch regiment was part of the British regimental system for about 250 years, until 2004 when it was combined with several other Scottish regiments and renamed a battalion of the larger combined regiment. This had a rather demoralizing effect on regimental members, particularly as they were in the middle of a very difficult assignment near Fallujah in northern Iraq. The British military in Iraq had been assigned to the south, in and around, Basra, but because of increasing military pressure in the north, the regiment had been moved to the Sunni Triangle, in spite of much parliamentary opposition, and set into a position of great danger, resulting in the loss of life of several regimental members.
This is the background for Black Watch. Now for the show.
In 2004, the new artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland wanted a new piece about Iraq, and thought that a focus on the Black Watch regiment might be appropriate. It was decided not to create a standard play, but rather to tell real stories of real soldiers. A researcher named Sophie learned that a group of former regimental members hung out at a pub in Fife, and sent Greg Burke, listed as the writer, to meet with them. He did, he pulled together several stories, and the project was cast.
John Tiffany was chosen to direct, and rehearsals started. One problem – there was no script. Just Burke’s notes of his interviews. But rehearsals started, and the piece came together, with regimental historians brought into room, former reigmental members to train the cast in parade ground movements, regimental songs, along with movement and dance instructors.
And so you wind up with what appears to be a unique piece that takes place in a Fife pub, with interviews of former regiment soldiers being interviewed by a documentary film maker, and with flashbacks to their time in Iraq. And you see the tragedy of Iraq, the plight of the soldiers whose futures seem very limited but who joined the Black Watch expecting a future filled with more glory than they found.
According to the director’s notes in the program, the basic format of Black Watch – drama mixed with music in various forms (here, bagpipes, ballads, marching songs), orchestrated movement (including the battle scenes), actual dance, intricate lighting, loud noises, smoke, NSFW soldier talk, and precision direction. Every movement is controlled. I assume each show is precisely like the previous show. It is very powerful, and it holds your attention.
I admired everything about Black Watch. Yet, somehow, I didn’t connect with it. It left me emotionally cold. Perhaps because that war is over, or because I am not Scottish and could not identify with the regiment or, in fact, with any of the soldiers (about whom personally we learned nothing), each played by an equally talented actor.
I am glad I saw it. I will remember it because of its (for me) unique format, and because of the skill involved in all aspects of the production.