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Review Round-up: Barbican Watch Worth the Wait

Two years after premiering at the 2006 Edinburgh Fringe, the National Theatre of Scotland’s hit Black Watch finally received its London premiere this week (25 June 2008, previews from 20 June) at a specially reconfigured Barbican Theatre as part of the BITE:08 season.

Hurtling from a pool room in Fife to an armoured wagon in Iraq, Black Watch is based on interviews conducted by playwright Gregory Burke with former soldiers who served in Iraq. Viewed through the eyes of those on the ground, the play reveals what it means to be part of the legendary Scottish regiment, what it means to be part of the ‘war on terror’ and what it means to make the journey home again.

Its run at the Barbican is part of a larger NTS world tour, which has seen the production travel to Los Angeles, New York, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and is due to return to New York later in the year. Black Watch has won a number of awards including a South Bank Show Theatre Award, a Scotsman Fringe First, and a Critics’ Circle Award (Best Director), as well as being nominated for Best Regional Production in the 2007 Whatsonstage.com Theatregoers’ Choice Awards.

Directed by John Tiffany, the touring production features several of the original cast members, including David Colvin, Paul James Corrigan, Ali Craig and Emun Elliott. It’s choreographed by Frantic Assembly’s Steven Hoggett, with music arranged by Davey Anderson and Gareth Fry.

The reaction of London critics chimed with the almost unanimous praise the piece received when it was first seen north of the border in August 2006. The “rich, exciting, humane and moving” production went down a treat in its traverse stage arrangement at the Barbican. Directed with “dazzling virtuosity”, and acted by a “credibly fit, hard and potentially dangerous” cast, Black Watch was hailed all over again as an “epoch-defining”, “landmark event” that serves as a “feather in the cap of Scotland's peripatetic National Theatre”.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) – “The long overdue London premiere of this sardonic military tattoo confirms its place as the modern theatre’s best piece about British soldiering since RC Sherriff’s Journey’s End and Willis Hall’s The Long and the Short and the Tall but with added spice and bravura … Burke’s quilt of testimony, woven from interviews with returning soldiers, becomes a poetic lament for a regiment which was incorporated in the British Army by George II in 1739 and saw service in Waterloo, the Boer War, Korea and Kosovo … John Tiffany’s stunning production … is performed in a traverse staging (seating for about 400 is already sold out) and loses nothing by being absorbed in the Barbican … It is a fantastic experience, this show, fully exposing the soldier’s work as fighting not so much for king and country as for camaraderie and the pride of the regiment itself.”
    • Michael Billington in Guardian (four stars) – “I found John Tiffany's National Theatre of Scotland production worked even better in a reconfigured Barbican than in the Scottish school-gym where I first saw it. And, on a second viewing, Burke's play is richer-textured than I first imagined … While acknowledging the inbred loyalty of army life, Burke neither sentimentalises the soldiers nor ignores the lunacy of the war. The ‘golden thread’ of tradition is vividly demonstrated in a choreographed episode of a soldier kitted out in successive Black Watch uniforms. But Burke also suggests that thread has been snapped by absorption of the regiment and by disillusionment in Iraq … That sense of linked destinies … comes through in the performances of Paul Rattray as the defecting Cammy, Ali Craig as a nerve-shattered comrade, Michael Nardone as the sergeant and Jack Fortune as the officer who shares his unit's disillusion. As befits a play about tribal loyalty, this is a glowing ensemble production and a feather in the cap of Scotland's peripatetic National Theatre.”
    • Nick Curtis in the Evening Standard (four stars) – “The rave reviews from Edinburgh and overseas were right. Gregory Burke's play showing the venerable Black Watch under fire in Iraq and under threat at home is rich, exciting, humane and moving, and staged with dazzling virtuosity by John Tiffany … Although the show's creators claim to have no political axe to grind, they regard the Iraq War as a reckless adventure - 'bullying' that wasted lives and sullied the reputation of the British soldier. But Burke demands, and earns, sympathy for the ambivalent pawns caught up in this unpopular conflict … If you were looking to pick faults in this majestic piece, you could say it sometimes seems to regard valour, loyalty and thuggishness as equally demanding of respect. And it is arch at times, as when actors playing soldiers ask the actor playing the writer whether actors get laid a lot. Never mind. Burke and Tiffany are supremely well-served by a ten-strong cast that cannot only act, but also look credibly fit, hard and potentially dangerous.”
    • Paul Taylor in the Independent (four stars) – “John Tiffany's compelling, brilliantly marshalled production marches in triumph into London … The power of the play lies in the way it draws together elements rarely found in tandem. On the aesthetic level, it unites the gritty authenticity of verbatim drama and the poetic theatricality of a style of staging prepared to embrace emotionally expressive choreography, plangent military song, video projection, and subtext-revealing mime. On the moral plane, it conjoins dismay at this particular conflict with elegiac sorrow for a regiment betrayed simultaneously on two fronts … The cast achieve perfection both at the drilled physical dynamism and the filthy, expletive-choked gallows humour … Full of intelligent, heart-twisting ambivalence, Black Watch is a landmark event.”
    • Sam Marlowe in The Times (five stars) – “So decorated with praise and claims of epoch-defining significance is John Tiffany’s National Theatre of Scotland production that it bears an awesome burden of expectation. Yet it more than lives up to the hype … Rather than political polemic … the work is concerned with the actual experience of fighting men: not just combat, but the boredom, the humour, the comradeship and the pride … Steven Hoggett’s exquisite movement direction gives military routine a sinewy, almost balletic grace. A squaddie clutching his head in hands, contorted in misery, is revived by a touch on the shoulder from his sergeant that speaks worlds of comfort and empathy. And in the men’s coarse, uncompromising language is wit, wisdom and an absolute absence of apology or self-pity … The ensemble playing is faultless, the fusion of text and production seamless, unsentimental and emotionally devastating.”
    • Simon Edge in the Daily Express (four stars) – “The performance area itself is endlessly adaptable as we move back and forth between a Scottish pub and the combat zone … Soldiers emerge from the innards of a pool table which turns into an army jeep. An actor is tossed around like a tailor’s dummy as he is dressed, undressed and dressed again in three centuries’ worth of Black Watch uniforms … Using a crackling script infused with four-letter humour, John Tiffany’s production is nothing short of spectacular. The cast, too, is flawless: by the end it is hard to believe that this coiled, dangerous lot are actors at all … My only reservation is what is left out. Focusing solely on the impact of the war on British soldiers leaves an Iraq-sized hole, and the scene where an Iraqi victim of the car bomb is literally invisible beside the dead Scots exposes Burke’s tartan-tinted approach. His bagpipe romanticising of the Black Watch may seem like a radical gesture in Scotland, but a truly great work about this war would not air-brush out the real victims.”

      - by Theo Bosanquet

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