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John Tiffany On ... Black Watch & the NTS

By • West End
Presented to sell out audiences at the 2006 Edinburgh Fringe, Black Watch was the fledgling National Theatre of Scotland's (NTS) first major hit. A large-scale, site-specific production – originally staged in a drill hall in Edinburgh - the show hurtles from a pool room in Fife to an armoured wagon in Iraq with dialogue based on interviews conducted by playwright Gregory Burke with former soldiers who served in Iraq.

Having wowed audiences worldwide, including trips to Australia and New Zealand and North America, Black Watch has been completely recast for its latest tour. The new cast inhabit the space of their predecessors, the Barbican's main auditorium reconfigured to accommodate the show which has been running since 30 November 2010 (previews from 27 November) and continues until 22 January 2011.

Director John Tiffany has been with the production since its inception, working with playwright Gregory Burke to create what can now be regarded as a Scottish theatrical phenomenon. As associate director of NTS Tiffany has staged many of the company's big hitting productions including David Greig's new adaptation of Peter Pan, The House of Bernarda Alba and The Bacchae starring Alan Cumming.

Currently on a year's sabbatical from NTS to undertake a research fellowship at Harvard University's Radcliffe Institute, I spoke to Tiffany about how Black Watch has stood the test of time, how the show's monumental success has effected the NTS and where the company stands now, celebrating its fifth birthday this year.


We first did Black Watch about four and a half years ago, which is a very long life for a piece of theatre, certainly one I've directed anyway. I suppose it starts when Vicky Featherstone, my boss at the National Theatre of Scotland (NTS), got the job there. We had to put a 12 month programme of work together and she was very keen to do a piece about the Iraq War but didn't really know the way in.

She was reading a piece in the Glasgow Herald and saw two newspaper articles, one which was talking about the Black Watch being amalgamated into the "super Scottish regiment" and a few pages later there was a story about three of the Black Watch soldiers and a translator dying in a suicide bomb. She saw a great irony in that whilst they were out in Iraq they were being dissolved. She asked myself and Gregory Burke to follow the story for a few months, and we decided to interview some soldiers.

I had worked with Greg before at the Traverse, directing Gagarin Way and with Paines Plough. Greg and I have got a really good working relationship, and we knew we wanted to create a piece of theatre that was different to anything we'd done before. We didn't really know how to do it. It was a really big leap of faith really; that we decided not to write a play as such, but we wanted to create and experience for an audience, much more along the lines of how 7:84 had worked and Bill Bryden with The Ship, the big pieces of theatre like that. Looking at the traditions of Scottish theatre, the music hall and the variety. We didn't really know what we were doing at all, but something came out of it

We knew what we didn't want it to become, but it took us a long time to work out what we did want it to be. Greg and I are both anti-war, but we didn't want it to be a piece of theatre which said we were wrong to invade Iraq, because that would have made us a bit ill really. You preach to a liberal Edinburgh Fringe audience, telling them that George Bush and Tony Blair were wrong, and then we all go and have a gin and tonic and pat ourselves on the back. We knew we wanted to try and find a story which would be more challenging to that audience.

In meeting the soldiers, and being quite shocked and gaining a new respect for them. That really surprised me, having grown up not thinking I had anything in common with people who wanted to go and kill people in Iraq or Bosnia or wherever, I was very surprised that I developed, over the time I was with them, a great deal of respect for them. I realised in a way, that they'd been betrayed as much, more than anybody with this war and that was the story which we decided to tell.

When we did the show initially it was a period piece, because we were three years on from the actual events, and so I was really surprised and pleased that it still had resonance for an audience. Four years from those first productions on I think people are still interested because, if anything, Afghanistan is worse. They're having a terrible time out there, it's an unpopular war. With distance, people seem to have found an even greater emotional connection with it. Which is terrible in a way, of course, is not something I'm proud of as a citizen of the world.

The new tour has an entirely new cast and the rehearsal process has been absolutely fantastic. I'm incredibly loyal to the actors who were involved the first time round. I didn't want them to feel an obligation though, to become veterans of Black Watch the theatre piece. To completely recast was a great excuse for Steven Hoggett, Greg and I to kind of refined what the show was about.

Apparently every young Scottish actor's dream is to be in Black Watch, so we had our pick. It was a long audition process. We knew what we wanted this time, it's the 'triple threat' thing of being brilliant actors who can also be soldiers, who can also sing and move fantastically.

The show has had greatest resonance working class communities, they get the humour incredibly well. Sydney, Australia was fantastic, because its a real working class city with a real demotic culture. They got the darkness of the humour of it brilliantly. But then, taking it to New York and LA, that ain't too bad either. Taking it to Glenrothes, the first time we took it there, and I imagine when we take it this time as well, it was an absolute honour. The parent's of two of the boys that died came to see it and that was a real honour.

I think Black Watch was our first articulation of what the National Theatre of Scotland was about. That we didn't have walls and we wanted to do theatre everywhere. We wanted to reenergise the ideas about what a national theatre can be. It's interesting because people keep telling us "it's really good, but it's not quite Black Watch". We really set out our stall, but we are just as proud of our other productions because they are as important to us and our audience as I think Black Watch is.

I can't imagine not being a non-building based company. I don't know if we'd have accomplished the same things. The same people would have been there, so I'm sure we would have had the same ambitions and the same ideas about what a theatre should be and how it could connect with an audience. I'm far too in the middle of it to be able to give you a useful answer on it.

We've always had a massive interest in doing work outside the central belt. Vicky really set out her stall with Home. We were saying that instead of being a national theatre in Glasgow or Edinburgh that people had to visit, we were a national theatre which would come to you. I think we've really honoured that ambition, we'll continue to do that.

I think NTS has galvanised and irritated people. We've certainly raised the notion of what theatre means to the whole of Scotland. We're still young. We feel like we're just hitting our stride. We've got a really exciting next year that we've just announced. As Vicky says, it's all about our artists and our audiences and finding new ways for our artists tell the best possible stories in the most exciting way possible, and to reach as many people as possible. To continue making Scotland proud in that way.


Black Watch continues at the Barbican Centre until 22 January 2011 before continuing its international tour. In the UK, Black Watch plays Warwick Arts Centre from 8 March to 12 March 2011.


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