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Black Watch

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Now something of a worldwide theatrical phenomenon, Black Watch was initially presented by the fledgling National Theatre of Scotland in 2006. Both the company and Gregory Burke's tale of young Scottish squaddies fighting in Iraq have now firmly established themselves, exported both Scottish theatre and the regiment's story.

The play's second trip to the Barbican, having previously visited London in June 2008, it is striking how the intervening years have aged the play. Actors depict the then Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon debating the political motivation behind the regiment's Iraqi deployment with the then Leader of the Scottish National Party (now no longer a Member of Parliament and the Scottish First Minister respectively).

A sardonic comedy (gallows humour, we are told, is a trademark of the "Jocks"), John Tiffany's production combines interviews with the soldiers in a Scottish pub on a Sunday afternoon with their everyday lives in Camp Dogwood, Basra. When interviewed the soldiers ask if they are being used, exploited on the stage for the benefit of others. No, assures Burke, who writes a version of himself (played by Keith Fleming) into the piece, bearing witness to the men's stories.

As well as dialogue, often delivered against a backdrop of enemy mortar fire, we are treated to movement devised by Frantic Assembly’s Steven Hoggett. At times it is breathtakingly simple, at others beautifully drilled, the entirely new cast capture the magic of the piece, fittingly supported by Cameron Barnes on the pipes.

This is a production peppered with three letter acronyms and turns of phrase which have now slipped into standard use and news reporting. Burke's Writer appears to modern eyes, naïve asking the meaning of the term IED, being so used to hearing of military losses caused by improvised explosive devices.

At its heart a story of a group of young men - in the moulds of their father and father's fathers, struggling to find an identity for themselves in a world where the pits, shipyards and soldiering make up the likely family businesses - Tiffany's production stands the test of time and the rigours of world travel. It remains a stunning piece of theatre, violently real and unafraid of lifting the veil on military conflict.

- Andrew Girvan

Please note: The following FOUR-STAR review is for the production at the Barbican in June 2008.

Gregory Burke’s Black Watch, a brilliantly theatrical account of the Scottish regiment’s last assignment in Iraq before its amalgamation in the Royal Regiment of Scotland, opened almost two years ago, on a sweltering Saturday night at the Edinburgh Festival. Since then, it has completed a world tour and is due to return to New York in October.

Meanwhile, the long overdue London premiere of this sardonic military tattoo confirms its place as the modern theatre’s best piece about British soldiering since R C Sherriff’s Journey’s End and Willis Hall’s The Long and the Short and the Tall but with added spice and bravura. Recruits to the regiment – mostly boys from Fife and Perthshire – materialise through a red pool table which later doubles as an army van on a fateful mission in Basra.

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. The last hurrah is at Camp Dogwood, where the Watch scandalously replaced twice as many US marines on a losing wicket.

John Tiffany’s stunning production for the National Theatre of Scotland – a defining event that has shaped the new company’s amazing success story – is performed in a traverse staging (seating for about 400 is already sold out) and loses nothing by being absorbed in the Barbican. With dance and marching movement devised by Frantic Assembly’s Steven Hoggett, and a soundtrack of pipes, drums, Michael Nyman and Snow Patrol arranged by Davey Anderson and Gareth Fry, the whole show becomes a campaign of attrition in its own right.

Four of the original cast of ten figure in their fatigues and red hackles (the distinctive Black Watch feather), with Paul Rattray now playing the lead squaddie Cammy, Michael Nardone doubling as the sergeant and Burke’s interviewing alter ego, Jack Fortune as the commanding officer and Nabil Stuart once again the chirpily aggressive Nabsy. 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. It is both great drama and a great social document.

- Michael Coveney

NOTE: The following FIVE-STAR review dates from 29 April 2008 when the production was on tour.

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 WilliamsDays 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.

- Matt Armstrong