The Black Watch is the oldest Highland regiment and its history gives this eponymous play its backbone. The playwright, Gregory Burke, based much of the piece on interviews with young soldiers who served in Iraq, and though their recent soldiering and their contemporary idiom provide material and flavour, it is the sense of their connectedness with their forefathers who fought in the Black Watch for three centuries that gives a fresh take on what it can be to be a soldier. There is great pride in the men of the Black Watch. Unfortunately, when it comes to Iraq, that misguided and shameful invasion/war/peace-keeping mission, it’s hard for a soldier to know of what he can be proud.
Black Watch the play is visceral, noisy, macho and busy. The action shifts back and forth between a pub in Scotland sometime after their tour of duty where a playwright tries to interview the soldiers, now in civvies, most of them restless, chippy and suspicious, and the war-zone in Iraq, where the heat, boredom and occasional atrocity provide the substance of their lives. In between, there are set-pieces of physical theatre, the most effective being a dressing-up parade in which the ensemble deftly change the historical uniforms on one actor (Jack Lowden), manhandling him like an Action Man as he speaks the story of the regiment.
The staging, in a rectangular space reminiscent of the Tattoo ground with seats banked on the long sides, is largely effective and occasionally frustrating. When actors barely look straight at the audience, they don’t let us into their characters’ emotions. The Scottish accents, though having their own beautiful musicality, occasionally test a Sassenach’s comprehension when the action is far distant, even though the actors wear mics. There is no missing the sound effects and music though, which are sometimes so loud I felt bludgeoned by the sound designer, and taken out of absorption.
What’s missing in Black Watch is an invitation into the darker recesses of the minds and souls of the characters. Then, perhaps we are simply shown the truth. These boy-soldiers are crudely misogynist, their play-fights and games, banal. Commonplaces about modern fighting abound: war is bad and chaotic and dictated by distant cruel politicians; when soldiers are away from home, they crave sex and takeaway food; American bomber pilots are gung-ho; you can only rely on your mates. I suspect the play would have had far more impact on its first showings, 4 years ago. Since then, the public have learned a lot more about Iraq, in the media, in The Hurt Locker, in verbatim accounts. There is no doubt that Black Watch is a very distinguished example in the canon of war-plays and may work well as a historical piece in a revival some years hence. If you haven’t seen it, the Barbican’s current revival certainly provides a window on war, but it is not as moving as it is informative about the regiment of the Black Watch.