Two aspects of Black Watch’s composition are theatrically on-trend: the formal use of verbatim text (predominant at the Tricycle, London), and the Iraq war as subject matter (note Roy Williams’ Days of Significance, Adriano Shaplin’s The Pugilist Specialist, amongst others). Sometimes, productions that use verbatim can feel flat and untheatrical, productions that centre on present military commitments all too frequently seem preachy, judgemental or sentimental.
Black Watch does not suffer these pitfalls. Following members of Scotland’s oldest Highland regiment who served in Iraq, the play is warm and visceral, hilarious and moving, consuming. It is total theatre: whole sections of the production are communicated through devastating music, punctual ensemble movement and well-judged projection. The play is a series of sharp sections, all differently designed to retain your attention; a ten minute monologue is delivered on the history of the regiment, but your eyes will not leave the stage for a second. Indeed, it is history, terrible and proud, that throbs throughout the production; punching the audience into warfare’s tragic past, wrenching them into the Army’s desolate present and thinking them into a fearsome future.
Gregory Burke’s script (he of Gagarin Way fame) is extraordinary. It is acute, sensitive and expansive. It has the capacity to force you to roar with laughter – as when Jack Fortune’s prissy English Officer announces “that’s what we’re fighting for: porn and petrol” – and make you cry huge, honest tears. The script is fantastically executed by an ensemble that has to work intensively for nearly two continuous hours. Michael Nardone’s ferocious Segeant and Emun Elliott’s squaddy Fraz deserve special mention for their performances in an accomplished production also notable for Laura Hopkins’ smart traverse design and John Tiffany’s brisk, perfectly realised direction.
Black Watch is absolutely honest, absolutely gripping, and absolutely Scottish. The National Theatre of Scotland – a company that has done remarkable things in its very short existence – deserves all the acclaim that critics have piled on the production since it opened at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2006. See it. You will want to see it twice. It is absolutely unmissable theatre.